CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The State Infrastructure Bank Board approved Charleston County’s latest plan to fund the completion of I-526 across James and Johns Islands.
Board members voted 5-2 to supply $420 million to complete the interstate. Florence Sen. Hugh Leatherman and one other member voted no.
“We’re excited, we’re happy, we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey said.
Under an amended agreement, Charleston County will be responsible for the rest, believed to be about $305 million. The county also will be responsible to defend any lawsuits.
“We’re going to fund and fight those challenges with everything we’ve got so we’re gonna be ready to get this done as quickly as possible,” Summey said.
Opponents say completing the interstate will spur more development and harm the quality of life. They also say the county is misplacing their priorities and cannot fund I-526 and other road improvement projects at the same time.
“The question that we have and I think every taxpayer needs to ask their local representative is what is this at the expense of?” Coastal Conservation League Communities and Transportation Program Director Jason Crowley said.
Summey says the money will be found from all possible sources because most folks are tired of sitting in traffic.
“The folks on Johns Island, James Island, West of the Ashley, Kiawah, Seabrook, Yonges Island, they deserve better then what we’ve given them," Summey said.
Summey says this is just the start and the permitting process will take a few years.
Supporters say a big hurdle has been cleared.
“We’re all sorry that it’s taken this long," Charleston Rep. Leon Stavrinakis said. "I’ve got a lot more gray hair than I had when I first started on this.”
On Thursday afternoon after the board’s decision, Crowley released the following statement on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League:
“Tonight, Charleston County Council will likely take a vote to commit more than $300 million to eight miles of new pavement. The I-526 extension threatens to rob county residents of real solutions to address urgent problems like flooding and traffic. We will continue to do everything we can to stop the project and protect residents and the rural sea islands, as well as local water quality, wetlands and wildlife.”
Gov. Henry McMaster, who campaigned heavily on pushing for the extension of the interstate to be completed while he is in office, also released a statement on the decision:
“This is great news not only for the Lowcountry, but for all of South Carolina. It is a perfect example of what we can do when we open lines of communication and collaborate to invest wisely in the infrastructure that will help keep our people safe and set us on a course towards future prosperity.”
The meeting came on the heels of McMaster’s inauguration on Wednesday. He had also previously called for it to be completed in a May 2018 letter.
Last June, the SIB voted to kill the extension project, convinced Charleston County didn’t have the funding secured to cover cost overruns for the project. Then last October, the SIB and the county reopened negotiations.
The county proposed to kick in more cash, $305 million instead of the original $117 million, to get it done. The crux of the misunderstanding, it seems, was exactly how the completion would be financed.
Completing the project is expected to cost approximately $725 million, and the plan calls for the SIB to commit to providing $420 million of that total, with Charleston County and the City of Charleston to foot the remainder of the bill.
County officials say they may dip into the funding from the half cent sales tax to secure the $305 million necessary.
The next step includes the process to secure all the permits to start construction. Crowley said he will be keeping a close eye on the permitting process, but the league wouldn’t rule out filing a lawsuit to stop the construction, saying they plan to keep all options open.