New Infrastructure Bank boss a contrary thinker about transportation

In September, Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Vince Graham as board chairman of the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank which focuses on large projects, like the Ravenel Bridge, shown here, as traffic streams between downtown and Mount Pleasant at dusk.

South Carolina has a history of being visionary in transportation, but the state in recent years hasn’t lived up to that reputation, says the new leader of the state’s infrastructure bank.

The Palmetto State built the Santee Canal, the first of its kind in the country, between 1793 and 1800 to tie the Santee River with the Charleston Harbor. And in 1830, it was the first place in America to offer regularly scheduled passenger rail service on the Best Friend of Charleston.

These days, however, it has a crumbling roads network that the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce estimates faces a $42 billion funding shortfall.

Still, Vince Graham, the new chairman of the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank board, said he thinks there’s hope for the state’s infrastructure. “We did have leadership on those issues,” Graham, 51, said. “So why can’t we be innovative again?”

Graham is an unusual choice to be the leader of the bank that isn’t really a bank. It’s an arm of state government charged with funding large transportation projects, such as the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which was its first one.

Since its creation, the bank has served as a catalyst for more than 100 projects in 28 counties and six cities totalling $5.3 billion — more than $2 billion of which came from the bank. Counties must put up matching funds for projects.

Graham, founder of the I’On Group, is a developer who specializes in “walkable” communities. His projects include the “new urbanist” I’On neighborhood in Mount Pleasant and Mixson in North Charleston.

“I’m in listen-and-learn mode,” said Graham, who so far has attended only one board meeting. And that meeting included a discussion, but no resolution, on the completion of Interstate 526. The bank has allocated $420 million for that project, but the estimated price tag has jumped to $725 million during the years opponents and supporters have been battling over the endeavor.

Graham said he’s not going to offer any opinions on the project. The bank has legal contracts in place which it must honor, he said. And he’s still doing his homework on projects in the pipeline.

But, he said, he thinks land use and transportation are tied together, and it’s important to consider them at the same time. For instance, he said, when I-526 was built across Daniel Island, much thought was given to how the road and the community would impact each other. He’s not sure the same amount of consideration has gone into the I-526 extension across Johns and James islands.

Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey, said he thinks Graham, who was appointed to the seven-member board by Gov. Nikki Haley, was an excellent choice.

He’s a developer with business experience, Summey said. But he’s “not politically beholden to anybody.” Graham is smart, he said. “I think he’ll bring a lot of fairness to that board.”

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, author of the bill that launched the bank in the late 1990s, said Graham was a good choice, even though he wasn’t the obvious choice. “He’s a successful businessman who understands value and quality,” he said. And he applauded Haley for “thinking outside the box” in choosing Graham.

Graham’s first move was to arrange live-streaming of board meetings so people can watch them on the Internet instead of having to drive to Columbia.

The board is perceived as being insular and not transparent, he said, although that’s not his experience. He thinks making meetings more accessible to the public will help turn that perception around.

But he’s more of a big picture person, he said.

Transportation technology is moving forward quickly, he said. Driverless cars already have been invented and could become the norm. “Maybe 15 years from now it will be dumb to own a car.”

And, he said, people think the answer to traffic is to add more lanes and more asphalt. But he thinks it’s about reducing the demand for those roads through better public and innovative transportation systems.

“Hopefully, I can be part of the conversation on transportation in this state,” Graham said.

Maybe the bank can do things differently in future, he said. Right now, it’s about wider roads because the bank waits for applications of $100 million or more from counties and then responds to them. The bank now reacts, he said, but there’s no reason it couldn’t move forward more strategically.

The only applications it has received are for large, wide-road projects, Graham said. “When it comes to transportation, people have blinders on.”

He said he comes from a family of contrary thinkers, and summed up the way he looks at the world by referring to one of his favorite quotes from the Bible, which comes toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14).

“Maybe,” Graham said, “the obvious way is not the right way.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.