Originally created 12/19/97

Estimates down for toll highway, but opening delayed



GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Costs to build the Southern Connector toll highway are $7 million lower than previously estimated, but drivers will have to wait nearly an additional year to drive it, documents show.

Developers on Wednesday provided the first detailed look at how they plan to pay for the 16-mile project, which will stretch from Interstate 385 near Mauldin to I-85 west of Greenville.

Lehman Brothers and Mesirow Financial Inc., underwriters of the new bond issue, estimate the highway will cost $233 million. Traffic levels through the year 2015 are 4 percent to 6 percent higher than previously estimated, accounting for the difference.

Interwest Management Co. of South Carolina will receive $11.9 million in fees for overseeing construction. It has agreed to finish the road by November 2001 or face daily penalties that begin at $3,000 and escalate to $33,000 if it is more than 20 days behind schedule.

As recently as last month, Interwest officials said they expected the road to open Jan. 1, 2001, despite delays obtaining financing and getting a state Supreme Court ruling on the road's legality.

As an incentive to finish early, the developers will receive $17,500 for each day they finish ahead of July 1, 2001.

Standard & Poors Corp. of New York was expected to issue a risk rating for the bonds Thursday. Lehman Brothers expects to sell the bonds sometime in January and has begun contacting potential investors with the offer, according to a local group behind the project.

"They're marketing the bonds," said Richard Few Jr., chairman of the Connector 2000 Association. "They're looking at investors who would be interested in buying these bonds."

When the bonds are actually sold, the Connector 2000 Association immediately will issue an order to proceed on the project and begin buying land, he said.

As promised by developers, the bond documents show that taxpayers won't be left holding the bag if traffic counts and toll revenues fall short of expectations.