COLUMBIA -- Powerful lawmaker Sen. Glenn McConnell says Charleston County's decision to walk away from the Mark Clark Expressway project -- and not repay $11.6 million in state money already spent -- is akin to asking for a government bailout.
McConnell, who leads the state Senate, said Friday the county should be on the hook for the money, or reverse course and finish Interstate 526.
The Charleston Republican did not back away from the suggestion that he worked behind the scenes to see to it that the expressway is completed. He said a majority of his constituents want the project done.
"There are bailouts everywhere from the taxpayers," McConnell told The Post and Courier. "That mentality has got to stop. There is no bailout. You can't make a decision to do it and then make a decision not to do it."
His comments came a day after the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank board gave Charleston County 60 days to pay back the money it borrowed or agree to build all or part of the extension across Johns and James islands.
The county warned that the bank's decision might result in as many as 200 people being laid off and the loss of some local services.
The bank gave the county $11.6 million that it spent on preliminary work for the Mark Clark project. That money came from state tax dollars, including a portion of the state fuel tax and vehicle registration fees.
"The Infrastructure Bank has extended millions of dollars to them, and now they want to walk off the scene?" McConnell said.
The project has long been controversial. On one side are those who believe the expressway should be completed as originally planned decades ago, to ease traffic woes and provide an emergency evacuation route.
Others argue that the plan will not substantially improve congestion and will lead to more suburban sprawl, potentially causing harm to the environment.
Chris Descherer, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the county might not be legally required to repay the $11.6 million. The June 8, 2007, agreement between the state Department of Transportation, the county and the Infrastructure Bank does not address what happens if the county decided not to build the road, he said.
"I think it's silent on the specifics," Descherer said.
The county decided not to build the highway following strong opposition at a series of recent public hearings. Most people at the hearings opposed a low-speed parkway across the islands, called "Alternative G," that was recommended in an environmental impact study for the project.
Descherer said it seems that the county is being punished.
The bank argued that if the county chose not to build the project that it must be reimbursed, or it will intercept the money that flows from the state to the county, known as Aid to Subdivisions.
Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican and a member of the bank board, said recouping the cash is a matter of the bank's financial health. At risk is the bank's bond rating, Limehouse said.
"I have to continue to operate with that paramount in my mind," he said. "I am looking at it from a 30,000-feet, global level. The bank is a phenomenal economic development tool. We need to keep it solvent."
The bank funds the state's major road projects, including the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. Limehouse filed the initial legislation to create the bank in the mid-1990s, at the suggestion of his father Buck Limehouse, who at the time served as chairman of the state Transportation Department commission.
If the road is not built, the $420 million the state has pledged would become available for other transportation projects. There is no shortage of other applicants waiting in the wings, officials said. The project has an estimated cost of $489 million.
McConnell, who is a lawyer, said the 2007 agreement the county signed may allow the bank to go forward with the road construction, despite county council's recent vote.
McConnell has been pushing the project behind the scenes. He has two appointments on the bank board, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Ric Tapp of Charleston, so his opinions are met with "receptive ears," but the board members are the ones who made the decision, McConnell said.
Council can avoid the $11.6 million bill by sticking to the original plan, he said.
"The longer we keep talking, the more expensive it's going to get," McConnell said. "It's going to cost them millions of dollars to get out."
What is it?
The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank funds the state's major road projects, including the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, the Interstate 26 interchange at Jedburg Road and construction in every region of the state. The bank has loaned $3.9 billion since it was created in 1997.
How does it work?
The bank receives cash each year from several sources, such as commercial truck and vehicle registration fees and one penny of the state gasoline tax. That money is used to issue 15- to 20-years bonds that the bank uses to fund the road projects. This year the bank received $175.4 million in cash. Its outstanding liability is $2.2 billion.
Who is in charge?
The bank is run by a seven-member board of directors that includes one member of the House, Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, and one member of the Senate, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and the chairman of the state Department of Transportation Commission, Danny Isaac. Gov. Nikki Haley has two appointees and House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, both Charleston Republicans, each have an appointment.
Who gets the money?
If the Mark Clark Expressway is not completed, $420 million will be up for grabs. Currently the bank cannot lend any more money until some debt is paid back.