Interstate 526

Interstate 526 currently ends near Savannah Highway in West Ashley. File/Staff 

West Ashley is slow to embrace optimism.

Of course, given the traffic, most things there move slowly.

But Gov. Henry McMaster’s call to finish Interstate 526 for once has even the most pessimistic highway proponents — public officials — hopeful.

Last week, the governor asked his appointees on the State Infrastructure Bank to get moving on 526, which the board has delayed for years. Local officials who’ve pushed this project from the start took notice.

“It has the potential to be huge,” says state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis. “We’ve never really had support from the governor’s office.”

Given the governor’s appointment powers at the Department of Transportation and on the State Infrastructure board, McMaster could hold enough sway to build a bridge or two — if he follows through.

If he does, thank the Charleston County legislative delegation, particularly Stavrinakis and Rep. Peter McCoy, as well as state Sen. Sandy Senn.

They persuaded McMaster to replace anti-526 SIB chairman Vince Graham. And Senn has lobbied the governor’s office relentlessly, even when her colleagues felt she was wasting her breath.

Looks like she wasn’t.

But if this actually happens, there’s another group West Ashley can thank: Mount Pleasant motorists.

Their recent misery has made it clear to state officials that the Lowcountry's traffic woes are serious.

Timing is everything

The politics on 526 have been ridiculous.

Some Infrastructure Bank board members believe Charleston gets too much state money, and they want the $420 million earmarked for 526 to spend in their own back yards.

Never mind the SIB’s three-way agreement with Charleston County and the DOT. They’ve used local opposition to the road as an excuse to renege on the deal for years.

Board member Chip Limehouse — who created the SIB as a state lawmaker — says no other project has been subjected to this level of chicanery.

“The county’s match on 526 is nearly 50 percent, and that’s unprecedented,” Limehouse says. “When we created the SIB, the point was to do projects locals couldn’t do. We wanted communities to have some skin in the game, but usually 10 percent, maybe 20 percent.”

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Charleston County, Limehouse says, has put in more than its fair share. There are no more excuses, so he hopes McMaster’s call to action will get the SIB moving.

The timing here is important.

The SIB board tried to dismiss the county’s latest attempt at compromise earlier this month, which prompted Senn to urge the governor’s office to get involved.

Stavrinakis says the governor’s office vetted the project, looked at the traffic numbers and was taking local concerns seriously. Then a cable in 526’s Wando bridge snapped.

Mount Pleasant, and the entire metro area, was thrown into a traffic Armageddon the state couldn’t ignore.

Funny thing is, on any given day, the daily mess caused by 526’s abrupt end at Highway 17 doesn’t look appreciably better.

But will it be this time?

McMaster’s opponents in the upcoming GOP gubernatorial primary cried foul over the timing of his 526 announcement.

As you would expect.

But Limehouse says this is nothing new; he and McMaster have talked about the need for finishing 526, especially as an evacuation route.

“He’s talked about how hard it would be to evacuate everyone without that road,” Limehouse says.

So now things are starting to move. Stavrinakis says if the governor’s office follows through with the SIB and DOT we might actually see some movement.

The Legislature controls the SIB, as it does most things in South Carolina. But there have always been two votes for 526 on the seven-member board. If McMaster can stir up his two votes, the county wins.

Stavrinakis notes the House delegation on the SIB have always supported the road; previous governors, not so much. So this is a welcome bit of leverage over the board and the DOT.

Senn laid all this out in a letter to Infrastructure Bank board Chairman John White, and says she’s had encouraging conversations with him. She points out that Christy Hall, the state secretary of transportation, says the county has met the requirements to get the project started.

So, for the first time in a long while, West Ashley has potential good news about traffic on the horizon. Some of it’s the politicking, but some of it is the absolute crisis caused by a broken bridge cable.

“I think we just needed everything out in the open,” Senn says. “It’s the right time. But it’s too bad it took what’s happening to Mount Pleasant to make everything start looking at this.”

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