I-526 or the “Mark Clark Expressway” is an interstate loop in Charleston County that currently terminates at Savannah Highway in West Ashley and in Mount Pleasant. In June 2007, the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) voted to fund the I-526 extension from the Savannah Highway terminus to the James Island Connector (SC-30). This 8-mile highway extension was estimated to cost at least $720 million dollars (originally $420 million) and save drivers only 36 seconds in travel time from West Ashley to James Island.
Rather than just saying “No” to this destructive project, the Coastal Conservation League hired the transportation planning firm Glatting, Jackson, Kercher, Anglin to create a new alternative to this massive highway project. Our alternative, “A New Way to Work,” will resolve traffic congestion in major bottleneck areas, cost over 50% less that the State plan, and create an enhanced public realm centered around the road networks. Due to limited dollars and resources, we continue to advocate beyond even our own alternative for a comprehensive approach so that the projects of highest local and state priority are pursued before and instead of politically motivated projects like the I-526 extension.
A large interstate project would continue to promote automobile-dependent transportation across Charleston County and increase sprawl outside the urban growth boundary rather than repairing those transportation corridors closer to the urban core. The proposed expansion of I-526 places pressure on rural areas and natural resources and is an inefficient use of valuable coastal land. Specifically, the proposed alignment (Alternative G) cuts through neighborhoods and the James Island County Park and impacts 17.4 acres of wetlands.
Further, this affects the state of South Carolina because $420 million dollars comes from the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. This is the funding entity for all projects of statewide significance and economic development. Given the limited resources, by choosing to obligate funds to I-526, the state bank is deciding against funding improvements to the I-26 and I-85 corridors, freight rail, and new economic development like Boeing in North Charleston.
Some proponents of extending 526 claim that it would improve hurricane evacuation for residents of Johns Island, James Island, and Wadmalaw Island. We disagree, for three reasons. First, the official evacuation route from Johns Island and Wadmalaw Island is US 17 south, not 526. Further, spending on 526 may come at the expense of projects that would actually improve evacuation off Johns Island, like a flyover bridge at Main Road and US 17. Second, building new roads into suburban areas encourages sprawl. If we extend 526 onto Johns Island, we can expect subdivisions to take the place of farms and wetlands. Encouraging development on a vulnerable sea island is not a good way to improve our preparedness for a hurricane. Third, funneling more traffic onto 526 from new development on James Island would worsen traffic at the intersection of 526 and 26, delaying evacuation from the coast.
In the comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others noted that the U.S. Corps of Engineers should not consider extending 526 to improve hurricane evacuation. The Corps agreed, responding: “Hurricane evacuation was not considered a need for this project.”
The South Carolina Department of Transportation has released their Draft Environment Impact Statement (EIS) with their selected alternative, a parkway concept known as “Alternative G.” SCDOT is in the process of finalizing the EIS. Our “New Way to Work” alternative was eliminated during the selection process and the League is working with the Southern Environmental Law Center to address why this alternative was not studied more closely.
As new development continues to cluster around the I-26 corridor, we must also direct our attention to the important transportation planning in that area. Rather than extending two bridges to rural Johns Island and building an expressway through James Island, we believe funds should be dedicated for improvements to the I-26 corridor to address the growing needs and maximize the benefit of new industry such as Boeing and the Clemson Restoration Institute wind turbine facility. Mass transit, such as light rail, is an exciting opportunity for this area and should have priority in attention and funding.
Operating under the existing Intergovernmental Agreement between Charleston County, the SCDOT, and the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank (SCTIB), in December 2015 the SCTIB adopted a resolution stating the following:
- Building the original full scope of the project is not possible without additional funds and the SCTIB will not allow the project to be partially constructed because it will “reduce the public benefits which were part of the original decision to commit the $420m.”
- The Board will reserve the balance of the $420 million in financial assistance for the Project subject to the following conditions being met by Charleston County:
- (a) on or before March 30, 2016, the Charleston County Council adopts a binding resolution in which it sets forth the County’s plan to fund, or secure funding for, the aforementioned shortfall for the Project from specified, dedicated revenue sources (other than the Bank) which plan is subject to review and approval by the Bank Board;
- (b) on or before April 30, 2016, Charleston County approves by a binding resolution or ordinance a new or amended Intergovernmental Agreement among the County, SCDOT and the Bank and any other related instruments requested by the Bank, all in a form and with contents the Bank determines are needed to implement the foregoing actions and protect the interests of the Bank;
- (c) before December 16, 2016, the Charleston County Council adopts and implements a legally enforceable ordinance acceptable to the Bank Board putting the aforementioned plan into effect and making those funds available for the Project on a schedule acceptable to the Bank Board.
In April 2016, the County passed a resolution (5-3 vote) to explore funding options, and three weeks later the City of Charleston followed suit with a resolution to consider sponsoring a toll to cover the cost overruns. At the May 26th meeting, the STIB considered whether these resolutions are adequate to grant an extension to the City and the County, giving more time to explore the viability of these proposals, or whether they should begin unwinding the project and reallocating the funds to other projects.
On May 26, 2016, the Infrastructure Bank voted to unwind the I-526 extension project by working with the SCDOT and Charleston County to reallocate the money to real regional and state transportation needs.
On September 15, 2016, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and County Council Chairman Elliott Summey sent a joint letter to to the STIB with a proposal to keep the I-526 extension project alive. It was quickly shut down by Governor Haley and subsequently retracted by Mayor Tecklenburg.
At the STIB’s December 2016 meeting, County Council Chairman Elliott Summey and Mayor Tecklenburg promised that Charleston would cover the $350 million shortfall for the I-526 extension, pledging $150 million from the County and the rest from the Berkeley Charleston Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG). Claiming they already ‘have the votes,’ this pledge flies in the face of transparency, public input, and accountability. Reluctantly considering this proposal, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) voted to extend the deadline for unwinding the I-526 project until the board meets again in March.
This latest proposal puts Charleston on the hook for $350 million, which is almost half of the cost of this $750 million state project. Pledging any resources, let alone $750 million of federal, state, regional, and local funds towards this project is fiscally irresponsible because:
The I-526 extension project isn’t even ranked on the state priority list; it is ranked 15th on the BCDCOG priority list; and Charleston County Council refused to put it on the half-cent sales tax project list, so it clearly isn’t even a local priority. And yet Councilman Elliott Summey and Mayor Tecklenburg committed hundreds of millions of our tax dollars towards the project – without a vote by Council or the BCDCOG and perhaps more importantly, without ANY public input.
If Charleston County Council votes to commit $150 million towards I-526, that money will come from the newly approved half-cent sales tax program. Councilman Summey refuses to reveal any details to the public about his new proposal, but the only viable pot of money is our tax dollars.
This means that projects like the flyover at US17 and Main Road, Bus Rapid Transit along the I-526 corridor, CARTA funding, Savannah Highway Capacity Improvements, and redesigning Folly Road are all on the chopping block.
After weeks of contentious debate, County Council approved a list of half-cent sales tax projects that deliberately did not include the I-526 extension – and followed up with assurances that they would stick to the list. “As I have said many times, each needs to be considered separately. The half-penny sales tax program Charleston County Council passed this summer, which is on the November ballot, was the result of careful study of our road and transit needs and did not include funding for the Mark Clark… Worries that council will not complete these projects as proposed are unfounded.” – Op-Ed by Councilmember Sass, Oct. 29, 2016
On November 2, 2016, local elected officials held a press conference in support of the half-cent sales tax program. Standing behind a poster with a list of projects to be funded, these leaders assured Charleston County voters that our hard-earned tax dollars would be spent only on those listed county priorities.
Less than two months after that tax passed at the ballot, Charleston County Council passed an ordinance committing $150 million for the I-526 extension without explaining where that money would be taken from. So much for accountability, transparency, and trust.
The STIB met on July 20, 2017, the first meeting of the board since the December 2016 meeting. Following a lengthy executive session, the STIB members chose not to invite representatives from Charleston County and City of Charleston to present how they intend to cover the $350 million cost overruns. Instead, the board members voted to continue the STIB’s December 2015 resolution until the next meeting, giving the County even more time to come up with a binding financial plan to cover the overruns.
Seven days later, on July 27th, Charleston County filed a lawsuit with the South Carolina Supreme Court against the STIB and SCDOT arguing a breach of contract. The County’s complaint indicates that the STIB has violated the three party contract by delaying the disbursement of funds and requiring the County provide more assurances that they will cover the overruns than originally required, thus, causing the cost estimate for the project to escalate. The County did state in the complaint that they do not have any issues with the SCDOT but were forced to name the agency in the suit since they are part of the three party contract.
The Coastal Conservation League continues to monitor this new chapter in the I-526 extension project and will periodically update this page as new information is provided.