Supporters of extending Interstate 526 tried to ram through state approval of the controversial project Wednesday, but they fell just short.
However, they did increase pressure on the state's Joint Bond Review Committee to make a decision soon regarding one of the most expensive public projects in Charleston County's history.
State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, moved to have the committee approve the new deal struck between the county, the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank and the S.C. Department of Transportation to resume work on the project to extend I-526 from Savannah Highway onto James and Johns islands.
"There’s no risk here for the state, and it’s time to reauthorize what was already authorized by this board and allow this project to go forward," he said. "It's been over a decade since that first contract was signed for this project and this project has languished and traffic has gotten worse and worse and worse."
But state Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, who led a subcommittee formed especially to scrutinize the deal, said he still had questions, including whether it's legal for the current Charleston County Council's ability to bind future councils to a local expense expected to top $300 million.
Alexander also asked if the project might face a hurdle because it was not included on the ballot question when county voters were asked to approve a sales tax increase for roads.
"I’m not against the project, but I think out of due diligence ... I would allow this committee to continue to do the appropriate work," he said.
"This has languished over 10 years. That’s not this committee’s fault," Alexander added. "Things have changed in that period of time. It’s gone from an interstate to a parkway. It’s not the same cost today as it was 10 years ago."
More than a decade ago, the state agreed to pay for the entire project, then estimated at $420 million. As costs ballooned and public support wavered, the project stalled. It was resurrected earlier this year when the state and county agreed that the state's share would be limited to $420 million — or $380 million since about $40 million already has been spent.
The project is now estimated at $720 million, but DOT Secretary Christy Hall said Wednesday the state will update that estimate before there's a public hearing on the project design in about 18 months.
At least two House members supported Stavrinakis's call for a vote Wednesday, but committee Chairman Sen. Hugh Leatherman did not let the vote take place. Instead, he granted Alexander's request for more time to review the details.
Supporters and opponents had mixed reactions.
Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey, a supporter, said the deferral would not slow work on the project.
"We’re going to continue moving this project forward with or without them,” he said, adding the Joint Bond Review Committee's predecessor already has approved the state's $420 million contribution. "As far as we’re concerned, that approval still stands.”
But Jason Crowley of the Coastal Conservation League, a nonprofit that has helped lead the opposition, said he was glad to see the committee slow down to ensure Alexander's questions are answered.
"We’re committing to something we don’t know how much it’s going to be, and I think county taxpayers should be concerned that state officials are saying that this is the county’s problem and that we’re flush with cash," Crowley said. "If we’re flush with cash, why do we not have any funds to complete the pitchfork (road project on Johns Island). Where is the money to fix our flooded roads, particularly around the hospital district?”
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said she appreciates the passion on both sides and asked if lawmakers could agreed to a deadline for when the issue would return to the committee for an up or down vote.
"I do think, in fairness to everybody around this table, it would be helpful to me if we could do a time certain or at least a guesstimate," she said.
No date was mentioned, but Alexander said, "I don't envision it being a long period of time."