Is there a conflict of interest between Infrastructure Bank chair and 526?

Standing on the side of a busy road is probably not Vince Graham's favorite place to be. Wade Spees/staff

When local developer Vince Graham was appointed chairman of the State Infrastructure Bank last year, local politicians cheered.

The county had been bickering with the Bank over Interstate 526 for years, trying to finalize an agreement to get $420 million promised from the SIB flowing to finish the extension. A local in charge, they hoped, would help break the impasse.

Not so much.

These days, even Graham acknowledges that around here his name is usually preceded by profanity. Why?

Well, Graham — the developer of I’On in Mount Pleasant — doesn’t exactly have a pavement fetish. In a Post and Courier op-ed last week, Graham wrote that decades of over-building highways has “maximized congestion.”

Not exactly the position some want from a guy with control of the state’s major road projects fund.

But most city and county officials believe the bigger problem is Graham’s ties to the Coastal Conservation League.

He’s a member, and used to sit on the board, of the group that is largely responsible for putting 526 on life support.

Locals are now whispering its a conflict of interest. You will likely hear more of this in the coming weeks.

They say it’s no coincidence that shortly after Graham joined the SIB it canceled the 526 project.

Graham disagrees.

“I don’t think I immediately shut down the project,” Graham said, “but I can understand why people think that.”

A few months after Graham took over the SIB, the county got an ultimatum: 100 days to come up with a way to fund 526’s alleged $300 million shortfall.

County officials dispute that estimate, but there’s no denying they have dallied, too — in part because there’s no consensus among them and partly because they disagree with the SIB’s insistence that the county pay for 526 legal bills and cost overruns.

Graham says the Bank merely grants money, it doesn’t run projects, so it shouldn’t be on the hook for other costs. That’s true — it should be the DOT’s responsibility, since it’s a state road. But the DOT won’t agree, probably because the state under funds them.

County officials argue there wouldn’t be legal bills if not for Graham’s buddies at the Conservation League.

Of course, Graham is correct that we can’t pave our way out of congestion. But many smart folks say 526 would help Savannah Highway and Folly Road quite a bit, and give Johns Island a much needed extra way off the island.

But the prospects of that are not looking good.

And more and more, people blame Graham.

Graham predicts the SIB won’t go along with plans to revive 526, or allocate the promised money — no matter what presentation (or threats) the county makes this fall.

“They’re rattling their legal sabers,” he says, “but the time has passed.”

The county says the deck is stacked against them, and Graham stacked it.

But there is a small glimmer of hope. Graham says he’s not opposed to other ideas for West Ashley, such as a Johns Island connector, but the county would have to reapply for the money if the focus of the project changes.

Translation: we’re probably not getting that $420 million unless we win it in court.

The county will likely balk restarting the SIB process because officials know their prospects are slim.

Right now, every state lawmaker in Columbia is drooling over the $420 million set aside for 526. Even Graham concedes there’s some anti-Charleston bias on the SIB, seeing as how the Bank has doled out $5 billion in the past 20 years — and 60 percent of it has gone to Charleston and Horry counties.

Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey says that’s tough. Most of the state’s growth is on the coast, and our road projects are more expensive because of all that water. Bridges aren’t cheap.

Very true.

Graham says the county should lobby for the power to levy a local gas tax for roads, as other states allow (some local officials are already considering the idea). The state is so far behind on road work, Graham notes, in part because the DOT is responsible for 54 percent of the roads in this state — 2-and-a-half times more than the average state maintains.

It’s clear 526 will only be built by cobbling together various funding — tolls, federal highway dollars, gas taxes. Maybe even a sales tax.

But it’s growing clear the SIB isn’t going to fund the whole thing, and maybe not even part of it.

Whether Graham is chairman or not.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com