526 Extension path.JPG

The path of the proposed I-526 extension would take the highway through, or along the edges of, several neighborhoods in West Ashley before crossing the Stono River. Lauren Petracca/Staff

As Charleston sat through its regularly scheduled Wednesday morning gridlock, county officials were at the Statehouse awaiting a technicality needed to finish Interstate 526.

But instead of a bond committee’s approval for the road that will connect West Ashley to Johns and James islands, they heard calls for “additional analysis,” “due diligence” and an ongoing “process.”

Which are all Statehouse terms for “stalling.”

So the county is putting it in high gear — not looking in the rearview mirror, not waiting for more state approval.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’re building a road,” Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey said. “The county has spent $3 million on the road, and we’re going to live up to our agreement with the South Carolina Infrastructure Bank. We’re going to keep building the road, with or without the Joint Bond Review Committee.”

That’s a good strategy, because this will never end as long as 526 is subject to the whims of the state’s most powerful man.

This farce has dragged on for years, and this week the state — well, let’s be honest, Sen. Hugh Leatherman — tried once again to sabotage 526 at the aforementioned bond committee.

This is how we got here: In October, Gov. Henry McMaster leaned on the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank to turn over the $420 million it voted to appropriate two governors ago.

When he lost that vote, Leatherman moved the ball to another court: the Joint Bond Review Committee, which reviews state projects that require bond financing — and which he conveniently runs.

And which, technically, approved this deal years ago. No matter, 526 has languished there ever since.

On Wednesday, Sen. Thomas Alexander repeatedly asked for information the county has already provided, requested assurances no other county has ever been asked to make, then recited talking points ginned up by local anti-526 forces.

This is a shameless power play to hijack $400 million, and it’s become a bad joke in Columbia. Lawmakers from around the state say Charleston has been forced to jump through unprecedented hoops.

The state has required Charleston County to spend all its matching money before South Carolina kicks in a dime on the road — even though highways are a state responsibility. The county has been forced to cover cost overruns and shoulder the liability from the inevitable lawsuits.

The state even asked outside analysts to check the credit of South Carolina’s richest county. No other community has faced such hurdles. Still, as House Majority Leader Gary Simrill noted, Leatherman’s committee has found “zero concerns.”

Charleston state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis made the point best. Charleston has grown by 15 percent in nine years and, frankly, the state hasn’t kept up with its infrastructure responsibilities.

“Counties don’t build interstates typically,” he said. “The county is doing this because we need it.”

Stavrinakis asked for a vote on Wednesday, a reasonable request, but Leatherman wouldn’t allow it. Probably because he knew that, once again, he would lose.

“All but two members seem to be tired of delaying the vote with no valid reason,” says state Sen. Sandy Senn. “Sen. Leatherman is like the king of the jungle in the Legislature. When he roars, everybody listens. But in a democratic process even lions only have so many roars before votes need to be taken.”

Of course, delay is the name of this game. But Leatherman and his bedfellows may have outsmarted themselves this time. See, by requiring Charleston to spend its money first, the county can start building 526, legally protected by its agreement with the state.

If the state reneges, well, that’s a losing lawsuit.

“Despite the efforts of a very small vocal minority, the voters have spoken and we have a mandate to the build the road,” County Councilman Brantley Moody says. “And that’s just what we’re going to do.”

Charleston County is right to build away, because this will never be resolved as long as Leatherman is in power. Want proof?

Alexander promised to conclude his 526 “review” before the Joint Bond Review Committee reconvenes, but claimed he couldn’t do that until Leatherman sets a date for the next meeting. Which, of course, he declined to do.

Then there’s this: On Wednesday, Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said there won’t be a new 526 cost estimate for 18 months. Minutes later, Leatherman innocently suggested holding off on a 526 decision until the next cost estimate comes in.

At this rate, Charleston County could get jerked around until there are flying cars — which is the only viable alternative to finishing 526.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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