The Interstate 526 extension project is back on the table following the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank’s 5-2 vote Tuesday to revive it yet again.
The vote at the SIB board meeting means the $420 million set aside more than a decade ago remains designated for the I-526 project, and Charleston County is still on the hook for coming up with the remaining funding needed to build onto the interstate. The county and the S.C. Department of Transportation will negotiate a new contract.
The bank board decides which infrastructure and highway projects should get funded in South Carolina.
In 2006, the board designated $420 million to extend the Mark Clark Expressway 8 miles from West Ashley, where it currently terminates at U.S. Highway 17, onto Johns Island and continuing over to James Island.
Years of delays and disagreements resulted in huge spikes in construction costs. The project is estimated to cost at least $700 million today.
The bank board has gone back and forth for several years as to whether to keep the funding reserved for the project or to forgo the project altogether.
The bank has voted to kill the project twice before — once in May 2016 and again in June — saying that project costs had risen too much over the years and that Charleston County did not have a viable plan to make up the funding shortfalls. Those votes put the $420 million originally promised to Charleston County back into the pot for use by other projects.
Both times, those decisions have been reversed.
Charleston County has threatened to sue the state infrastructure bank if the funding is not allocated to the project. The county has already invested more than $100 million on roadwork in preparation for the highway extension.
Gov. Henry McMaster also advocated during the summer for building out the highway, after the James B. Edwards Bridge on 526 was shut down for several weeks as a result of faulty cables. The closure created mass congestion in an already crowded highway system in the Lowcountry.
The Mark Clark Expressway extension plan has been controversial for more than a decade. Many Lowcountry elected leaders and business officials have championed the project, saying the need for more capacity has only intensified over the years as the region’s population has ballooned.
Many island residents and environmentalist groups have said the infrastructure project would irrevocably change the character of the area by cutting into marshes, wooded areas and neighborhoods, for what they say is minimal benefit to traffic. They have also said it would harm the project and possibly push people out of their homes.