A decision on whether to release state funds for a major road extension through the center of Charleston County could be made as early as next week.
The board of the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank (SCTIB) will meet Dec. 14 to discuss whether to approve the disbursement of $420 million, even without all matching funds in place.
Business leaders and many politicians in the Charleston area want the funds approved so that work can begin on the extension of Interstate 526. Environmental groups oppose the extension, claiming it will increase sprawl while minimally decreasing travel time.
The project, first proposed in 2007 and with a total price tag of $725 million, was held up after the bank’s board yanked approval this year because local leaders could not come up with a plan to match the funds.
“Ten years down the road to force the city and county of Charleston to do this is an unfair requirement,” Mike Wooten, chairman of the South Carolina Department of Transportation and a voting member of the SCTIB, told Palmetto Business Daily.
Wooten said the federal government did not require the state to have every penny in place before signing off on funding for the development of I-73. He confirmed the matter is on the agenda, “so I do know it will be taken up but I could not hazard a guess on what the outcome will be,” he said, or if a vote might be put off for another day.
“There is a contractual agreement with Charleston County and it should be adhered to and because of that contract there is no choice but to be in favor of the contract with the intent to build the road,” Wooten said. “Based on the last vote, there were four opposed but I do not know what has happened since.”
Charleston political and business leaders are expected to address the board before any vote. Opposition groups, including Nix 526, will also be in attendance. The Trident CEO Council sent a letter to the bank urging the board members to release the money so work can start in phases.
In the letter, signed by council executive director Tom Leonard and chairman Mark Fetten, the bank was reminded of its contractual obligations.
"It is our understanding SCTIB has a legally binding $420 million contract for the extension of I-526," the pair wrote. "Last year about this time, Chairman (Vince) Graham was quoted in the newspaper referring to I-526, 'The bank (SCTIB) has legal contracts in place which it must honor.'"
The council added, "Our region needs collective board leadership. Can we count on the SCTIB to honor the I-526 contract?"
Following the May board vote denying the release of the $420 million, it appeared the the project was finished, at least for the foreseeable future. But discussions between the bank and city and county leaders were revived in earnest in September, and the potential for a deal became more real.
There are reports funds raised via the half-cent sales tax, which voters backed Nov. 8, were promised during those discussions.