I-526 project revived at Wednesday board meeting

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The battle to keep the I-526 extension project alive continued Wednesday, as Charleston leaders now have three more months to find millions needed to fund the project.

"We got a little ray of hope," Charleston County Chairman Elliott Summey said following Wednesday's meeting of the State Infrastructure Bank board meeting in Columbia. "They did not kill the project."

Initially, State Infrastructure Board Chairman Vincent Graham proposed a 10-point plan for the bank to end its involvement in the 2007 contract. The chairman's recommendation followed a May vote to put an end to the project after Charleston County failed to come up with a plan to cover a $300 million funding shortfall.

Instead, DOT Chairman and board member Mike Wooten recommended members honor the board's initial commitment and made a motion to rescind a May 27 vote to kill the project. Rep. Chip Limehouse supported Wooten with a second.

Ultimately, board members unanimously voted Wednesday to extend the deadline for Charleston County to identify the local matching funds required to complete the Mark Clark Expressway. The initial contract designates $420 million from state funds, requiring Charleston County to produce more than $300 million still needed.

Several board members demand further confirmation such funds can be secured before moving forward with the project.

"A year ago, Dec 15, the bank affirmed its longstanding commitment," Graham said. "We asked for a plan for more skin in the game. We did not get that so we moved to unwind it. Now with these new offers, we'll see how that goes."

One of the offers included $150 million from Charleston County, proposed by Summey. Summey said the remaining $180 million needed could possible come from grant funding or bonds.

"Our federal guide share bonding expires in 2020," Summey said "So we'll be able to re-bond that money… and try to move forward and use it for the Mark Clark."

Summey stood alongside Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, in addition to several state and local representatives in attendance. The mayor said the 526 extension isn't a "silver bullet" but said the extension is a necessity for improving traffic and safety of residents.

"I'd like to personally thank the members of the Board for doing their part today to bring this critical transportation project back to life," Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said in a press release. "As I explained to the members this afternoon, completing the Mark Clark is absolutely essential to our whole region -- for traffic relief, for evacuations and public-safety access, for bike and pedestrian infrastructure and more. Now, it's up to us to do our part, first by formalizing the local matching funds, and then by working with our state and regional partners to finally begin moving the project forward toward construction."

Opponents for the project, including Robin Welch of Nix 526, and Charleston County Conservation League spoke out against Wednesday's decision. Council members Henry Darby and Dickie Schweers also sent letters of opposition to Chairman Graham.

"The fact that there's still consideration to spend $420 million and more on a road project that's not a state priority is really frustrating," Natalie Olson with the Coastal Conservation League said. "$150 million more from Charleston County taxpayers with no plan how to complete it.

Yet, leaders say they have a plan and now the momentum to see the project to completion.

"They want us to put our money where our mouth is, and I don't blame them," Summey said.

Charleston County Council will need to approve the promised $150 million at a future meeting. The bank board expects Charleston leaders to present a full funding plan at its March meeting.

Copyright 2016 WCSC. All Reserved Reserved.