The state bank that funds large highway projects revived plans to complete Interstate 526 over James and Johns islands, four months after abandoning the venture.
The State Transportation Infrastructure Bank's board voted 5-2 Tuesday to negotiate a new contract with Charleston County and the S.C. Department of Transportation.
That reversed the board's decision in June, when a majority gave up on the extension, complaining the county had repeatedly failed to come up with a reliable, practical plan for funding its portion of the $725 million project.
While the county's plan is still unclear, the bank board showed a willingness to participate in the project under new terms, specifying the state won't pay beyond the $420 million it committed more than a decade ago. The rest, $305 million under the latest estimate, will be up to the county.
That would make it the largest local investment in any single capital project in the county's history.
The shift occurred after Gov. Henry McMaster intervened. He became a supporter earlier this year after a partial closure of what's known as the Mark Clark Expressway — the section connecting Mount Pleasant to North Charleston — created a traffic nightmare for weeks.
Representatives from the bank, county and DOT met in his office Aug. 28.
"There's a very grateful Charleston," Charleston County Councilman Elliott Summey told McMaster after the vote. "Without Henry McMaster, there is no 526."
The governor, who's running for his first full term, walked into the meeting along with his running mate, Pamela Evette, after the bank board voted to reconsider squashing the project.
“The completion of 526 is very important to the future of our state. Everything we do is based on infrastructure,” McMaster said after the meeting. “It’s going to take years to build. We need to get started.”
With McMaster watching, his two appointees — Chairman John White of Spartanburg and Ernest Duncan of Aiken — backed it this time.
Both snubbed the governor's request to support it in June. At that increasingly testy exchange, White and County Council Chairman Vic Rawl accused each other of not being forthright.
White said the plan the county presented in May wasn't a plan at all, as it essentially left the bank picking up the balance. Rawl did not attend Tuesday's meeting. On Monday, he told The Post and Courier he had "no idea" what the bank board's meeting would be about.
The 7-mile extension of I-526 would create a new path from West Ashley through Johns Island all the way to the James Island connector. The idea is to connect it with other major roads and ultimately the existing parts of 526, completing a traffic loop around the center of the region.
In a 2007 joint agreement with the county and DOT, the state bank agreed to pay for its construction. At the time, its estimated price tag was $420 million. But the project was put on hold in 2015 when new estimates revealed it would cost more like $725 million. Since then, the bank and the county have been divided on whether to raise additional funds to cover it or abandon the project altogether.
Under the new terms, if the project is scaled back and costs less than the projected $725 million, the county would cover 30 percent and the state bank would cover 70 percent. Tuesday's vote provided 45 days for the details to be signed.
Charleston County Council ratified the bank's action at a special meeting Tuesday night in a 6-2 vote, with Councilmen Dickie Schweers of Mount Pleasant and Joe Qualey of James Island voting against it. Councilman Henry Darby was absent.
Schweers and Qualey argued that originally, the project wasn't going to cost the county anything.
"It’s amazing how hundreds of millions of dollars doesn’t seem like that much money anymore to this council, but it’s a lot of money for me," Schweers said. "And I am just appalled that we are willing to pay that much money for something that we were not supposed to pay anything for."
Councilwoman Anna Johnson, who represents Johns Island, called them "sore losers."
"You’ve got plenty of roads in Mount Pleasant to go where you need to go," she said. "The people of Johns Island need to have another road."
Opponents said the board's action Tuesday still didn't address how the county will come up with the funds, the defining question of the years-long dispute.
Jason Crowley with the Coastal Conservation League said the move is merely political pandering, noting the 45-day deadline comes after the November election.
"We still don't have the money in place. Where is this money suddenly coming from?" he asked. "This was a campaign move."
The project is still likely at least five years away, due to the permitting process and expected lawsuits, Summey said.
"We have various sources for funding, and that’s where they’ll come from when the time comes," he said, adding that borrowing probably won't be needed.
The county has agreed to pay all costs for defending the project in court.
"Bring on the lawsuits. The faster they come, the faster we can" dispose of them, said state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston.
Earlier this year, McMaster signed a law that put a 90-day limit on how long a permit can be tied up in court on an environmental appeal. Previously, state-issued permits could be blocked indefinitely.
This isn't the first time the long controversial 526 project has seemingly come back from the dead.
Supporters call it a crucial link for relieving traffic congestion. Opponents contend it would further fuel suburban sprawl on Johns Island and that the money would be better spent on smaller road projects.
The bank board was on the verge of spiking the project in May but instead declined to make any decision — at McMaster’s request.
McMaster initially did not take a position on the project itself, asking only that board members hash out questions openly. Weeks later, he told the bank to fund it, saying the closure of two lanes of the interstate over the Wando River later in May showed why the project on the other side of the peninsula is necessary.
Conservationists had hoped the June vote finally spelled the project's death knell. That previous decision essentially doubled down on the board’s May 2016 vote to unwind the project.
Under state law, the governor gets two representatives on the seven-member bank board.
McMaster appointed White in March 2017 to replace Charleston real estate developer Vince Graham, after Charleston-area legislators complained Graham was blocking the 526 project. Duncan is the governor's other representative, though he was appointed by former Gov. Mark Sanford in 2004.