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The on-ramp at the West Ashley end of I-526, at U.S. Highway 17, on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Even Sen. Hugh Leatherman agrees: The I-526 completion project seems to be inching forward once again — maybe.

“Due diligence for a $700 million public project is not to be taken lightly,” says Leatherman, R-Florence. “Charleston needs this and many other traffic improvement projects. A process is now in place, and I’m hopeful we can move this forward.”

That’s a supremely measured assessment, but then any positive words from Leatherman suggests better prospects for a project that has been trapped in interagency conflicts and miscommunication.

Leatherman chairs the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Bond Review Committee. He also is a member of the State Infrastructure Bank Board that in serial actions since 2005 has committed to finance $420 million of what now is estimated to be a $700 million or more project.

For years, as one of seven SIB board members, Leatherman has demanded that Charleston County document its funding sources for its ever-growing financial commitment. His unwavering insistence led to his being labeled a project antagonist by many proponents.

By law, his Joint Bond Review Committee must approve the commitments of the SIB. And Tuesday, the committee is expected to consider a path forward that would begin with a phased approach to keep the project moving through its requisite preliminary stages.

So, what happened to create this brightening light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel?

Last fall, Charleston County Council leaders, realizing they were in endless head-butting with the SIB board, wisely looked for a new path forward. Council Chairman Elliott Summey led the flanking action. He and his colleagues persuaded Gov. Henry McMaster to intervene. It was campaign season; the governor understood; he essentially ordered his SIB board appointees to reconsider the bank’s resistant stands.

A divided SIB board promptly cobbled a new interim arrangement with Charleston County. That moved the project agreements to Leatherman’s Joint Bond Review Committee for statutory ratification. A subcommittee is at work documenting options and details, including the county’s financial strategies. Suddenly, the project seems to have the “possible new life” Leatherman describes.

Proponents will credit McMaster’s actions, but the governor’s intervention seemed to refocus Charleston County’s tactics, too.

Leatherman agrees. “My position never changed. It’s about the money, period, and protecting the state’s interests. The county depends on the 2004 and 2016 sales tax plans, and that might work if sales keep growing three percent every year. We’ll see, but this commitment could have been made long ago by including the project in the ordinance council passed for the 2016 referendum.” It was in the first versions of the ordinance, the senator says, but eliminated in the last version. “This created confusion and hesitation that I believe have made a difficult process even more difficult.”

Leatherman says options should become clearer when the Joint Bond Review Committee meets Tuesday. “My hope is that the county will furnish to SIB a realistic binding proposal that assures the county money is and will be available to complete this massive project.”

Sen. Tom Alexander, R-Walhalla, chairs the subcommittee. It has studied the county’s financial plans, and its staff has complied an impressive 82-page summary of the project’s history and the laws that frame action options. Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, and Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, are members of the Alexander subcommittee.

The full committee will likely consider an equally funded $24 million two-year state and Charleston County hand-holding through federal permitting renewals and refinements of final cost projections, a key in the county’s assessments of its funding sources. This approach could keep the project moving toward a readiness for the bulldozers. No doubt, though, if that starting line reappears, a ragout of lawsuits will await.

“Nothing simple and easy about this,” says Leatherman. “This all calls for a careful and deliberative path and I hope that’s where we are.”

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.

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