COLUMBIA — The state bank that funds large highway projects dealt a serious blow to completing Interstate 526 over James and Johns islands, voting 4-3 to end its participation.
The vote Tuesday, applauded by conservationists, is not necessarily the death knell for a project that's been in limbo for years.
John White, chairman of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, predicted the courts will have the final say.
Charleston County Council Chairman Vic Rawl said he'll ask his board what steps are next.
The two chairmen traded barbs during the increasingly testy meeting, each accusing the other of not being forthright.
"We're a bank. I have to take this to market. You need to show me where the money is," White said. "You want to put the blame at our feet, and it’s not there."
The county has repeatedly failed to come up with a reliable, practical plan for funding its portion, said board member Joe Taylor of Columbia, who made the motion to step away.
"It's a funding issue. Nothing more, nothing less," Taylor said.
The vote was a snub of Gov. Henry McMaster's request to back the project. White, of Spartanburg, is his appointee. It also came on primary runoff day as voters decided whether McMaster is the GOP nominee to keep his job. He went on to defeat GOP challenger John Warren with 54 percent of the vote statewide, though he lost by several hundred votes in Charleston County.
McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the project remains a top priority for public safety. The governor intends to bring the sides together to broker an agreement in the coming weeks, he said.
"This can be fixed," said former state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, a bank board member. "We were dealt a major setback but the sun’s going to come up in the morning."
The two members voting with him were House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, and Ben Davis of Greenwood.
Limehouse said the vote's timing, following a year of closed-door meetings, "stinks to high heaven."
"None of it feels right," Limehouse said. "It seemed like more of a personality problem than a funding problem."
Board member Ernest Duncan of Aiken said his decision had nothing to do with relationships or "snide remarks."
"We are going to catch hell regardless of what we say or do," he said. "If I catch hell on earth but I do the right things, I'll catch heaven in the end."
The seven-mile extension of 526, also known as the Mark Clark Expressway, has long been an emotional topic. Supporters call it a crucial link for relieving traffic congestion, while opponents contend it would further fuel suburban sprawl on Johns Island and that the money would be better spent on smaller road projects.
The board was on the verge of spiking the project last month 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 last month's closure of two lanes of the interstate over the Wando River showed why the project on the other side of the peninsula is necessary.
"The whole region was almost at a standstill. That kind of congestion and problem resulting from half a bridge being down are what citizens on the other end have been experiencing for years," Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said at the meeting Tuesday.
He pleaded with the board to "find a way forward to make this a reality." The city will help with funding, Tecklenburg said, though he could not specify how much.
"We’ll have a bake sale in the city of Charleston if we need to," the mayor said.
Laura Cantral, director of the Coastal Conservation League, said the bank acted in the state’s best interest and can use the money "toward the state's real needs."
“South Carolina’s existing roads and bridges are crumbling,” she said. “Like the Wando River bridge, they’re in bad shape and could use critical state support.”
The vote essentially doubled down on the board's May 2016 decision to unwind the project it initially committed $420 million toward in 2007.
The board then tentatively approved an additional $138 million in 2012 after the estimated price tag climbed to $558 million. It took back that boost when estimates climbed above $725 million three years later. Instead, the bank asked the county to come up with the $300 million-plus funding gap.
The county has been trying to convince the bank ever since that it can pay, despite the 2016 vote.
White said the county's latest plan, made public last month, wasn't a plan at all, as it essentially left the bank picking up the balance.
Rawl said he didn't want to surrender with the offer; he expected negotiations toward a new contract to follow.