Who took I-526 off sales tax proposal? How it landed on Charleston County list at all is mystery

It is unclear how the I-526 extension disappeared from a list of projects to be completed under a proposed sales tax

Prior to Tuesday night’s Charleston County Council meeting, a list of proposed half-cent sales tax projects included the largest and most controversial road project in the county, the completion of Interstate 526.

But when the council voted to put the referendum on the November ballot, I-526 had disappeared from the list — and no one said why, or asked.

Why it disappeared, how it got on the list in the first place and what happened in between remains unclear.

On Wednesday some council members said I-526 was pulled from the list because they have received hundreds of form emails from 526 opponents threatening to campaign against it. But others said they would work to kill the referendum before a final vote to place it on the ballot if I-526 isn’t included.

Before discussing the proposed referendum in the Finance Committee on Tuesday, staff gave a brief presentation to council about the plan, which said that connecting I-526 across Johns and James islands had a lot of support, based on public comments.

Afterward, Councilman Herb Sass read the sample ballot word for word. Except it wasn’t the same sample ballot that had been handed out to council members last week and posted on the county’s website prior to the meeting.

As Sass reeled off the various projects the proposed tax increase was intended to fund, I-526 wasn’t mentioned.

Then, council members took turns discussing the plan, and there was hardly a mention about that omission until Councilwoman Anna Johnson clarified: “Sass, I don’t remember that you included 526 in your motion.”

Sass replied: “I did not.”

And that was that. No more questions, no big arguments. Chairman Elliott Summey said Wednesday he was surprised.

“I was prepared to need a pillow and a blanket because we were going to be there for a while last night, because that’s been pretty much the kind of case every time we talk about 526 … but it wasn’t,” he said.

Some have said there are enough council members to block the referendum if it includes language for 526. Others say they won’t vote for it without some form of 526 on the referendum.

Several, including Councilman Dickie Schweers, said it’s disingenuous to include the project because the proposed sales tax wouldn’t raise enough money to complete the road. Councilwoman Colleen Condon said she doesn’t support the 526 extension, and most council members know that by now without having to discuss it in a drawn-out meeting.

A couple said they are philosophically opposed to forcing county taxpayers to build roads for the state. Councilman Henry Darby, said that’s why he couldn’t approve the referendum on first reading Tuesday.

Summey said it was county staff’s idea to add I-526 to the plan, and council just “decided to go a different way.”

Council will hold a public hearing Thursday, followed by a special council meeting, where members will take a second vote on the plan.

It’s curious that I-526 was included on the initial list in the first place. Last month, the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank closed the door on the $725 million project because Charleston County leaders didn’t submit a solid plan to cover its more than $300 million funding shortfall. County and Infrastructure Bank officials are sorting out ways to close out the project and redistribute the $420 million set aside for it.

Summey says negotiations with the SCTIB aren’t going well. The county wants some of the $420 million, and it’s willing to sue the infrastructure bank to get it, he said. Also, even though the state money for I-526 likely is gone, some officials, business leaders and members of the public — including Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce — have said they would be unlikely to support a referendum that didn’t include money for I-526.

Post and Courier reporter Diane Knich contributed to this report. Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906.