By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Sr. Staff Writer
The South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank voted to approve $420 million for the completion of I-526 at their meeting in Columbia on Jan. 10.
The funding has been offered and withdrawn multiple times, (2016, 2018) starting with the initial allocation of the same amount over a decade ago. The initial $420 million amount was sufficient to cover the cost of the entire project without a direct cost to Lowcountry residents.
SIB’s ability to pool money is the result of The South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank Act passed in 1997. The funds are quilted together from one cent/gallon of the gasoline tax, loans from the Department of Transportation, federal monies made available to South Carolina, federal grants, loan interest, and a “bonding capacity” to name a few. Money for projects like I-526 do not have to be paid back, but the SIB typically wants recipients to buy-in by shouldering the additional expense of incidentals and cost overruns.
Delays in completing I-526 while permits were secured, studies done, and plans drawn up gave inflation a chance to kick in. Three-year-old estimates put the cost of completing I-526 closer to $750 million, and opponents of the project suspect the 2019 amount will inch closer to the billion dollar mark before it’s all said and done.
“The latest price estimate from SCDOT says 526 would cost $750 million. But that estimate is from all the way back in 2015 three years ago. If the price of 526 increased from $489 million to $750 million in the five years between 2010 and 2015, extrapolating that out then … the cost of 526 now, even if it could be built today, is $924 million… and SIB intends to sign a new contract with Charleston County for 526 without bothering to ask SCDOT to prepare a current cost estimate. It is reprehensible to me that [County Council] are prepared to sign taxpayers’ name in blood to cover an unknown quantity of money… Since there is absolutely zero chance Charleston County can ever actually come up with this money, $420 million in state infrastructure funds will be held hostage, said James Island resident Robin Welch in an email distributed to 500 “friends,” and on the NIX526 blog.
If SIB’s withdrawing past approvals is any indication, they don’t like committing funds, that aren’t used while projects in the rest of the state go begging.
Charleston County officials acted quickly to deploy the latest intergovernmental agreement with SIB. In a series of special meetings held the same day SIB inked the agreement, the County Finance Committee met, followed immediately by a special meeting of County Council. Public comments were not allowed (there’s recording of Councilmember Elliot Summey eschewing a room full of “damned residents”), and County Council decided to use money from the recent half cent sale tax increase.
The 2016 vote to “complete the penny” was a close one as previously reported. Very close, and county officials pitched the idea in every way possible. They even went to the trouble of developing and distributing a list of what the money would be used for.
Completing I-526 was not on the list. Measures to improve congestion in Mount Pleasant, and initiatives to improve public transportation were on the list, for example, but not I-526.
There are also environmental concerns associated with the project.
Jason Crowley, Communities and Transportation Program Director for the Coastal Conservation League said in a notification to CCL supporters, “The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board just approved a revised contract for the extension of Interstate 526, without input from the public or a clear idea where the money will come from. The 8-mile highway extension is a fiscally irresponsible project that will irreparably damage the environment on Johns and James islands.
“Although the board did not state specifically where money to cover the project’s more than $300 million shortfall will come from, the board’s attorney said the main source will be Charleston County’s half-cent sales tax. Charleston County voters were told in 2016 that half-cent sales funds wouldn’t be used for I-526.”
Although Crowley’s note did not elaborate on specific environmental concerns, there is a pelican sanctuary on Johns Island, and a nature preserve near James Island County Park once considered sacrosanct in the project’s path.
There is plenty of support for completing I-526, however. Flooding roads on Johns Island are notorious and pose a real risk if impassable during a hurricane evacuation.
Seabrook Island Mayor Ron Ciancio explained, “At this point I think it’s probably still too early for everybody to raise their hands and declare victory. We are obviously a step closer and a very important step closer, but are still a lot of hurdles that have to be jumped over before this thing is a done deal. I would hope that the county and state continue to work together and find a way to get this thing done. Certainly from my perspective and I believe a vast majority of the people on Seabrook Island’s perspective, we think it’s a good thing. Anything that will serve to alleviate traffic on Johns Island… is a good thing.”
Ciancio didn’t recall how many times the SIB had withdrawn funding only to reinstate it, but is familiar with accounts claiming the funds will be now be gleaned from the half cent sales tax passed by county council in 2016. “I know [that’s] controversial. [I-526] wasn’t on the list of items to do when ½¢ tax was [pitched/ approved]. However, I am confident that the county has done its legal homework, and would not be relying on those funds unless it had a solid basis to do so.
“I think it’s a good thing. We have long spoken about the need for relief from Bohicket and believe that the cross island parkway is a viable alternative to trying to put four lanes on Bohicket. If the 526 extension goes through, I think the argument for the cross island parkway becomes even more compelling,” Ciancio added.
He is also keenly aware of the need for an additional route off the island in the event of a hurricane.
“For Matthew I [experienced] a nightmare. There was an accident on Bohicket, and we sat there for an hour and a half waiting for the accident to get cleared. God forbid we had a hurricane on our back. That would have been disastrous. I applaud County Council for moving in the right direction, but I think it’s a little too early for everyone to start lighting up a cigar and say ‘mission accomplished’ because I don’t think they’re quite there yet,” concluded Ciancio.
Johns Island resident Rich Thomas agrees with Ciancio, at least in part. “There is no credible source for county money. The SIB money has not passed the Joint Bond Review Committee, there is no cost estimate, and no upper bound on what taxpayers are being committed to. There are no permits and many other, more pressing, road projects that will be displaced,” said Thomas before accusing the half-cent sales tax process, and County Councilmembers Elliot Summey and Vic Rawls.
Clearly approving $420 million spawns more questions than answers, but this may be a case of 90% of any problem is making a decision, and the other 10% is making it work.