McMaster after I-526 meeting

Charleston County Councilman Elliott Summey, Gov. Henry McMaster and state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, talk to reporters Tuesday, Oct. 2, after the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank votes to revive the Interstate 526 project. Seanna Adcox/Staff

The folks at Nix 526 got a double dose of bad news last week.

Without fanfare, controversy or publicity, Elliott Summey reclaimed the reins of Charleston County Council. And guess what his first priority is.

Yep.

More than two years ago, the Nixers tried to sabotage the once and future chairman by releasing surreptitiously recorded tapes of him (and them) talking smack about Interstate 526 and various public officials. The idea was to take him out of the game.

Obviously, that didn’t work out so well.

Summey chose not to run for another term as chairman then, but his colleagues have handed the gavel back to him now for a very specific purpose: He knows commercial real estate — and this is the year Charleston County settles all family business.

Including the completion of a certain long-delayed interstate project.

The county has had more than its share of land trouble recently. A judge ordered county officials to buy back the former Naval Hospital on Rivers Avenue for $33 million after a totally botched deal, and plans for a new recycling center on Palmetto Commerce Parkway are in disarray.

Summey plans to spend 2019 digging the county out of those messes … and jump-starting 526. Just don’t call it a comeback.

Truth is, he never went anywhere.

Behind the scenes

The deal to finish 526 languished on life support for several years, with the State Infrastructure Bank itching to pull the plug.

The agency committed $420 million to complete the road more than a decade ago, and for a while agreed to contribute even more — until Charleston lost much of its Statehouse clout.

Then, some powerful lawmakers decided that money would be better spent in their districts, and used the incessant grousing of groups like Nix 526 as cover to steal it.

Now the county is set to ink a new deal with the SIB that could get the road project underway soon — and council members say Summey deserves much of the credit.

After all, he got Gov. Henry McMaster involved.

Last spring, the state Department of Transportation shut down one of 526’s bridges over the Wando River with structural problems. The ensuing traffic apocalypse caught the governor’s attention.

Summey took the opportunity to begin lobbying McMaster for a little help with the obstinate SIB board.

See, although the governor’s powers are limited by the state constitution, he does get two appointments to the seven-member SIB — and his guys were half of the opposition to finishing 526.

For most of the summer, Summey and a couple of other council members quietly negotiated with the governor and the SIB to secure the money promised to Charleston County. McMaster made it clear to his appointees what he wanted.

Which is another reason council members reappointed Summey as their chairman.

Finish the job

On Thursday night, Summey took the gavel and announced “it’s time to get to work.”

He wasn’t simply talking about a road.

There are a lot of things on the county’s plate these days — the recycling center, the hospital and various traffic improvements around the county. Then there are plans to sell a multimillion-dollar, multi-acre tract on Morrison Drive, which the county has owned for years.

But 526 is priority No. 1.

That may surprise people who heard those Nix 526 tapes, on which Summey said he didn’t support finishing the highway. At the time, the Infrastructure Bank's chairman was a hardline anti-526er with close ties to local opponents, and Summey was trying to recruit their help to keep that money in Charleston.

It was politics, pure and simple. This, conversely, is business.

Obviously, his colleagues say, Summey wouldn’t mind a victory over the people who tried to take him down — he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t.

But this isn't about personal politics. This is about easing out-of-control congestion, giving county residents what the majority of them want. It’s about fulfilling a plan that’s been in the works for generations, since Summey’s grandfather — Miner Crosby — was on the council.

It's about giving Johns Islanders a third way off the island, siphoning traffic off Folly Road and clearing up the intersection of 526, Sam Rittenberg and Highway 17 — one of the worst choke points in the county.

Summey has his work cut out for him. But he's determined, he swings a mean gavel and — as we've seen — it's a mistake to underestimate him.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.