Ravenel was on a mission: Build that bridge

Sen. Arthur Ravenel Jr.

The namesake of the Lowcountry’s landmark over the Cooper River didn’t design, engineer or build it, but played a key role in making it a reality.

“The problem was always the money,” former state Sen. Arthur Ravenel Jr. said recently from his downtown Charleston office, as the bridge’s gleaming twin diamond towers loomed outside the tall windows.

The need to replace the set of rusting steel truss bridges linking Charleston and Mount Pleasant had been generally accepted since the 1980s, but little progress was made. Ravenel recalls a highway inspection report in the mid-1990s that helped turn the tide. On a scale of 100, with 100 being a perfect, structurally sound bridge, the old Grace Bridge ranked as a 4.

“That’s when everybody gasped,” he said. “Everybody realized something had to be done.”

At the time, Ravenel’s political career appeared to be winding down, if not already at an end. The former Marine had parallel success in the real estate business and Lowcountry politics, where he was one of its first elected Democrats to switch over to the GOP. James Edwards, a Mount Pleasant dentist who became the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, was an early ally.

But after serving decades off and on in both the Statehouse and in Congress, Ravenel lost a bid for governor in 1994, “and I didn’t have any idea of going back to the Senate.”

Then, one day, he had lunch with his longtime friend and political colleague, the late Mount Pleasant Mayor Harry Hallman, who had figured out a way that the state could finance such a costly project: create a special entity with a healthy revenue stream, bonding powers and a mandate to tackle only large projects of $100 million or more.

“He was a very innovative fellow,” Ravenel said of Hallman, who died in 2011 after an illness.

Hallman was persuasive, too. Their conversations helped convince Ravenel, who was nearing his 70th birthday, to seek his old state Senate seat in 1996. He ran on just a single issue: “I’m going to try to find money for the bridge.”

In the following years in the Statehouse, Ravenel did what few politicians do so neatly, living up to his campaign promise.

He had a lot of help, from then Gov. David Beasley, who had beaten Ravenel in the GOP primary just a few years earlier but who remained on good terms with his former rival. And from then-state Rep. Henry Brown, chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and who later would get elected to Ravenel’s old congressional seat. And there also was help on the federal level, from U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, who served in Washington with Ravenel and who helped get almost $100 million and a federal loan to help the state.

The key piece was the creation of the State Infrastructure Bank, Hallman’s brainchild and what Ravenel had returned to Columbia to fight for.

For a proposal of its size and scope, it cruised through the Legislature with relatively few changes, as lawmakers from other metro areas realized the bank also could pave the way for big highway projects in their backyards.

But it wasn’t easy: There was an initial uproar over all its pros and cons, and some debate about who should appoint the bank board members. One Senate vote came down to the wire, with Sen. Robert Ford responding to Ravenel’s plea by convincing Sen. Maggie Glover to support it.

“It just about gave me a heart attack three or four times,” Ravenel said at the time.

Ravenel said he recalls Hallman drove Ravenel and Brown to the bill-signing ceremony in Myrtle Beach, where they were met by a security guard who ran up and informed them they could not park in the VIP section.

“Hallman said, ‘I’ve got the author of the bill, your former congressman and state senator, and I’ve also got the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee,” Ravenel recalled. “The security guard said, ‘I don’t care about all that. I told you: It’s for VIPs only. There’s plenty of parking in the back,’ so Hallman drives around to the back and that’s where we parked.”

The bank soon committed about $325 million. Ravenel and other prominent local officials served on a selection committee to pick the team that would design and build the bridge, a relatively new approach to construction in South Carolina.

Ravenel kept tabs on the project as it took shape, and the state and contractors figured out what they could and would build. He said he remembers this as a happy time, and the bridge ultimately would include a 10-foot-wide bike and pedestrian lane, lighting that could be dimmed during sea turtle nesting season and room for an eventual light rail line.

“Everything is on the bridge that everybody wanted,” he said.

Before the bridge opened in 2005, state Sen. Ernie Passailaigue, a Democrat, introduced a bill to name it for Ravenel.

“He didn’t tell me he was going to introduce it. He just introduced it,” Ravenel said. “I really was a little embarrassed. I hadn’t anticipated that, but I thought it was very nice of Ernie.”

Some voiced concern about the move at the time. Ravenel had stirred controversy by referring to the NAACP as the “National Association of Retarded People.”

Howard “Champ” Covington, then chairman of the Infrastructure Bank Board, said that while Ravenel “is a fine decent person,” the new bridge “is bigger than any one individual and it should reflect all the qualities of the state and not some state senator who happens to be in the Legislature the time the structure is being built.”

At the time, Passailaigue noted, “the only opinion that matters is 171 legislators’.”

Passailaigue said recently that Ravenel deserved the honor not only for guiding the infrastructure bill but also for coordinating with the state’s congressional delegation — then a more even mix of Republicans and Democrats — to line up financial support there.

“We would still be fighting this battle if not for somebody like him. It took his unique personality to get it done. He was a bulldog,” Passailaigue said. “Most people around here had talked bridge politics for years and years, but Arthur actually made it happen.”

There have been skirmishes about renaming it since. Earlier this year, Charleston-area lawmakers turned down state Rep. Wendell Gilliard’s bill to name the bridge the The Sweetgrass Skyway, though the bill made clear that the state would continue to designate the bridge span as the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

“My intent was never to take the name away from Arthur Ravenel,” Gilliard said.

Ravenel kept silent while lawmakers considered what to do. “People asked me what I thought,” he said. “I said listen, the Legislature owns the bill. I’m not getting involved in that one way or the other.”

Asked whether he expected people would really call it the Ravenel bridge or simply the Cooper River bridge, Ravenel said he expected an earlier nickname would have stuck more.

That nickname was suggested by someone familiar with the folksy style of Ravenel, who traces his first ancestor here to 1686 and who is well known to most as Cousin Arthur.

“I thought they would call it ‘the Cuzway,’ ” he said.

Ravenel was re-elected in 2000 and served a second four-year term in the Senate as the bridge took shape over Charleston Harbor.

During that time, Ravenel was able to do something else that he considers an accomplishment right up there with his work on the State Infrastructure Bank: He introduced an amendment directing a portion of the state’s real estate documentary stamp tax to land preservation through the state’s Heritage Trust Foundation.

“It was something I was able to do with very little effort that has resulted in the vicinity of 100,000 acres of property that belongs to everybody in the Heritage Trust program,” he said. “And it’s still producing that money.”

About a decade ago, Ravenel left the Statehouse following a scare. One night, he fell asleep at the wheel of his pickup truck while returning home from Columbia. But he still served on the Charleston County School Board before leaving elected office. He also has made a cameo on “Southern Charm,” a reality show his son Thomas is featured on.

Most weeks he splits his time between his Mount Pleasant home, his farm and his downtown office, where he has a framed profile on him declaring him to be “East Cooper’s Quintessential Bubba.”

He said he has heard only one complaint about the bridge, which came about six months after it opened in 2005; a man called the former senator to say that his wife didn’t like it because its height made her nervous.

“I said, ‘You tell that good lady, just for her, I’m going to crank it down 35 feet,’ ” he joked. “I never heard from him again.”

And while Ravenel, now 88, has slowed down, his only remaining complaint about the bridge that bears his name is that more drivers on it should slow down.

“They really ought to enforce the speed limit on the bridge because before you know it, people are going to get killed,” he said. “The speed limit is 55 mph, and people are driving 65, 70 mph. ... I was thinking about that this morning. I was going 60, and people whipped by me.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.