COLUMBIA — State officials declined Monday to make any decisions about completing Interstate 526 over James and Johns islands, which supporters called at least a partial victory in reviving the disputed project.
The state Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which borrows and doles out money for large highway projects, was on the verge of voting against the county's latest proposal for completing the Mark Clark Expressway, current and former legislators said.
"I view today as a big win," said former Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, who sits on the bank's board.
He thanked Gov. Henry McMaster for sending the bank's chairman, John White of Spartanburg, a letter ahead of the meeting that called on county and state officials to hash out questions about the project "through the most transparent and deliberative means possible," not behind closed doors.
McMaster told his appointee to take no action on the project's fate until "various important issues may be further and fully addressed and resolved."
Before the bank's board voted to go into executive session to discuss the project, Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, stood and reminded White that the governor asked for transparency.
Senn, whose district includes the highway plan, was among legislators who met with McMaster last week.
McMaster's letter, dated Monday, took no stance for or against the project itself, which has been disputed for more than a decade.
Supporters call the 7-mile extension 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.
It's unfortunate the bank kept the project alive, said Jason Crowley with the Coastal Conservation League.
"We could've had by now real traffic relief," said Rich Thomas of Johns Island, a member of Nix 526 who's been fighting the project for years. "Every aspect of traffic relief has been held hostage by this pie in the sky."
Expecting to celebrate after a board vote, Thomas had stickers ready to pass out with "NIXED" printed over the interstate sign.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said no decision was better than a "no."
In 2007, the bank committed $420 million for the project. It 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 in 2015. 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, even after the bank's board voted in May 2016 to unwind the project. County officials argue the bank can't unilaterally end it.
The county's latest 25-page plan, made public at the meeting, involves the bank recommitting that $138 million — bringing the state's pledge to $558 million — $105 million in federal money, and the county using $62 million from the half-cent sales tax that voters approved in 2004 and again in 2016.
Last summer, Charleston County asked the state Supreme Court to find that the bank breached its contract. The county sought $750 million in damages, which would essentially pay for the whole project. But the state's high court declined to take the case directly.
It could still sue in circuit court.
Charleston County Council Chairman Vic Rawl said he's hopeful that bank board members seemed to recognize the only way forward is to change that 2007 contract.
But White said the lack of a decision "is not a step forward or back."
The bank's backpedaling on the project coincided with Charleston County legislators no longer running the House and Senate. Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell was a big advocate for the project before resigning and pleading guilty to misdemeanor ethics charges in fall 2014 for using campaign donations to fly his plane.
White said the bank's decisions have nothing to do with politics.
"It's not a political project. It's a financial project. The county needs to give us assurances necessary to bond this project," he said. "We're just a bank."
Limehouse, who helped create the bank, disagreed.
"There's a 'p' political factor involved with any project with a big price tag and this has a huge price tag," said Limehouse, who spent 22 years in the House before not seeking re-election in 2016.