COLUMBIA — A new deal to complete Interstate 526 over James and Johns islands could put the roughly $725 million project back on track after years of wrangling.
The state bank that funds large highway projects voted 5-2 Thursday to approve a new 21-page contract with Charleston County Council, allowing the two to meet an already extended deadline for agreeing how to proceed with the project that's been on life support for years.
"Truly today is a transformational day for a project that looked like it was completely dead in June," former Rep. Chip Limehouse, a board member who's long championed the extension, said after the meeting. "At the end of the day, we won. This is the day we scored the touchdown. Boom! 526 will be built."
Under the deal, the bank's share is capped at the $420 million it had committed to more than a decade ago. The county must come up with the rest — more than $300 million under the last estimate in 2015 — and also has agreed to pay for any legal challenges.
Just hours after the bank acted, County Council approved the contract in a 7-2 vote at a special meeting.
"We’ll sign the document immediately and be ready to move forward in the morning," County Council Chairman Elliott Summey said. "The amount of time people sit in their car when they can’t be at work or can’t be with their families is detrimental to the quality of life, and we want to get people to and from home and work safely."
Residents of West Ashley and the sea islands beyond "deserve better than what we’ve given them," he said.
Summey said county staff would start soliciting contractors "immediately," but residents shouldn't expect to see orange cones anytime soon. He added that the permitting process alone could take several years, and the controversial project appears certain to attract challenges from environmental groups.
"We know that's coming, that's no surprise," Summey said. "No one likes court, but we stand ready to defend those (challenges)."
It's still unclear exactly how the county will pay for its portion. Officials say the money primarily will come from the county's additional penny-on-the-dollar local sales tax for transportation projects, which increased from a half-cent in May 2017. That brought the total tax on items sold in Charleston County to 9 percent, above the statewide 6 percent.
Several proponents of the project said during the county meeting that they would seek federal dollars, and Summey stressed that the expressway would not delay other area infrastructure projects that might pull from the same sales tax funding source.
But County Councilman Dickie Schweers, who opposed the contract along with Councilman Henry Darby, worried about the continuing obligation.
"I know we’ll be scrambling to find funds elsewhere. There’s no guarantee," Schweers said. "We’re the only guarantee here."
The county is essentially promising it will cover the difference, one way or another.
"Anything we have at our disposal, we'll use," Summey said.
The State Transportation Infrastructure Bank's board voted Oct. 2 to negotiate a new contract with the county and state Department of Transportation, reversing its decision four months earlier to abandon the venture. The bank's vote to approve new arrangements came on the day of the latest deadline, Jan. 10.
The seven-mile extension of I-526 would create a new path from West Ashley through Johns Island all the way to the James Island connector. The idea is to connect it with other major roads and ultimately the existing parts of 526, completing a traffic loop around the center of the region.
Supporters call it a crucial link for relieving traffic congestion. Opponents contend it would further fuel suburban sprawl on Johns Island and that the money would be better spent on smaller road projects.
Reneé Orth, a James Island resident who attended the county meeting, said she was angry that a sales tax she voted for would likely fund a project she opposed.
"I am mad as hell, and I am particularly upset I don't have an opportunity to voice my frustration right now with m elected officials," she said, referring to the fact that the public did not have a chance to speak at the meeting.
However, attendance at the county vote was light: Only about 25 people, many of them supporters of the road extension.
Jason Crowley with the Coastal Conservation League said the county should not commit more than $300 million of local tax money to a single road project when there are so many needs for roadwork and flood control. County officials should be looking at regional transit solutions instead of building an extension to an already flood-prone area, he said.
The commitment, if paid for with county dollars, would represent the county's largest capital project ever, by far.
Those applauding Thursday's deal included the area's new Democratic congressman, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham.
"This critical infrastructure project will be vital for traffic relief and evacuation routes" for West Ashley and Johns and James islands, he said in a statement. "Today's agreement demonstrates what can happen when leaders put politics aside for the good of their constituents."
The state bank originally agreed to pay for the entire project in a 2007 contract, when the estimated price tag was $420 million.
But when updated estimates in 2015 climbed to $725 million, the project was put on hold. Since then, bank and county officials have been divided on whether to cover the difference or abandon the project altogether.
A majority of the bank board gave up on the extension in June, complaining the county had repeatedly failed to come up with a reliable, practical plan for funding its portion.
The bank board's newfound willingness in October to work out new terms came after Gov. Henry McMaster backed the project and put pressure on his two appointees. McMaster came to the October meeting and sat on the front row as members voted.
Limehouse credited McMaster with changing the board's "entire tone and tenor" toward the project.
"The political winds shifted dramatically when McMaster" put his weight behind it, said the Charleston Republican. "I do not see that majority changing in the slightest."
Those on the bank board voting against the contract were Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and former state Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor of Columbia, Leatherman's appointee to the board.
Leatherman insisted Thursday he doesn't oppose the project, despite his votes.
He said he again voted "no" because he wanted to better review the project's planned cash flow: "I want to make sure I'm doing my due diligence to determine this is in the best interests of the state of South Carolina."
Beyond Limehouse, others voting for the new contract were McMaster's two appointees, Chairman John White of Spartanburg and Ernest Duncan of Aiken; House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill; and Ben Davis of Greenwood.