The controversial extension of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands has consumed a great deal of local attention in recent years, but it’s a proposed widening of the existing portion of the road that has landed on the S.C. Department of Transportation Commission’s most recent priority list.

Other projects

In addition to widening of I-526, S.C. Department of Transportation commissioners recommended six other priority projects:

Improving the I-85/I-385 interchange in Greenville, at $240 million.

Widening 5 miles of I-26 to eight lanes west of I-20 in Columbia, at $90 million.

Widening 25 miles of I-85 to eight lanes in Greenville and Spartanburg counties, at $241 million.

Widening 10 miles of I-20 to six lanes in Lexington County, at $155 million.

Widening 3 miles of I-77 to six lanes between I-20 and S.C. Highway 277 in Richland County, at $39 million.

Widening 28 miles of I-85 to six lanes in Cherokee County, at $425 million.

S.C. Department of Transportation

The commission last week approved a list of seven projects that it thinks should be completed first, based on a priority ranking from DOT employees. And it sent that list, along with a resolution, to the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank. The bank, which helps finance major road projects in the state, doesn’t have to comply with recommendations from the DOT commission.

The bank’s board and DOT officials will meet next month and likely will discuss the list.

The I-526 widening is the only Lowcountry project on the list. That’s notable because some Midlands and Upstate leaders have been critical of the bank for spending what they consider is a disproportionate amount of state money on the coast.

The widening to six lanes of the entire completed portion of I-526, which runs about 19.5 miles from West Ashley to Mount Pleasant, would cost about $534 million, said Mark Lester, the DOT’s director of planning. That’s just an estimate, he said, because there are no solid plans in place for the project. “It’s more in theory,” he said.

The commission’s action comes less than a month after lawmakers approved a bill that used a combination of borrowing, new revenue from growth and reallocated sales taxes from vehicles to raise nearly $1 billion for the state’s roads and bridges over the next 10 years.

The largest portion of that will come from money routed through the DOT to the Transportation Infrastructure Bank. The bank will leverage that money to issue bonds.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican and a member of the Infrastructure Bank’s board, said he thinks that widening I-526 is a priority in terms of traffic flow and to some extent safety. But he thinks widening Interstate 26 in Berkeley and Dorchester counties is a higher safety priority.

The DOT has a plan to remove all the trees from a 30-mile stretch along that portion of I-26. That plan now is on hold after a loud and sustained public outcry.

Limehouse, who supports the completion of I-526 across Johns and James Islands, said he doesn’t see any conflict over spending an estimated $558 million on the extension of I-526 when the existing portion is in need of widening.

“That money already has been allocated,” he said. “It’s widening versus extending.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.