The chairman of a powerful state transportation board wants to take money from a proposed Interstate 77 project and use it to start work on the dreaded “Malfunction Junction” interchange in Columbia.
State lawmakers gave the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank board about $550 million earlier this year, and board members are trying to decide how to spend it.
The state Department of Transportation sent four projects to the board for approval – including a $38 million project to widen I-77 from I-20 to S.C. 277 – based on a prioritized list of state projects.
Redesigning Malfunction Junction, the bottleneck of Interstates 20 and 26 in Columbia, is No. 1 on the Transportation Department’s priority list. But that project was passed over because it would cost at least $700 million, which is more the Infrastructure Bank has to spend.
However, Don Leonard, the chairman of the Infrastructure Bank and an appointee of Gov. Nikki Haley, a Lexington Republican, wants to take the I-77 money and use $12 million of it to pay engineers to completely redesign Malfunction Junction. That would put the project one step closer to being “shovel-ready,” meaning it would be a better candidate for federal or state highway money.
“I see our assignment, as a group, as to start the modernization of our interstate system. This would be just the start,” Leonard said. “I think the Legislature would look favorably on that if we have this master plan.”
But Johnny Edwards of Greenville, the chairman of the state Transportation Department Commission, opposes the swap.
There were rumblings that the Infrastructure Bank’s board might deviate from the Transportation Department’s proposed list of four projects — half in the Midlands and half in the Upstate — before Thursday’s meeting. But most of those rumblings centered on the possibility that Lowcountry road projects could be substituted onto the bank’s list.
This is the first time lawmakers have given the Infrastructure Bank money from the state’s general fund – an important development because the Republican-dominated Legislature has refused to increase the gas tax, which pays to maintain the state’s roads.
Edwards fears that if the board starts tinkering with the list of projects recommended by the Transportation Department, it will spook lawmakers enough that they won’t give the board more money in the future.
“We need to do this above board, without any clouds in the air, and we need to do the right thing for the people of South Carolina – not the politically right thing, but the right thing,” Edwards said. “If we start moving (the projects) around, I think we’re going to jeopardize future funding. We’re going to lose a little credibility.”
But other bank board members said addressing the need for a new interchange at Interstates 20 and 26 is the right thing to do.
“Addressing the No. 1 issue in the state is not political,” said board member Joe Taylor of Columbia. “It’s a smart business move on our part,” he said.
The Infrastructure Bank board’s evaluation committee – which recommends the projects that the bank should finance – did not make a decision Thursday. Instead, it decided to have the bank’s full board debate Leonard’s proposed swap at its scheduled meeting Nov. 12.
State Transportation officials estimate the Malfunction Junction project would cost $700 million to $800 million and take eight to 10 years to complete. The interchange is heavily trafficked by commuters to Columbia from Irmo, Chapin, Newberry and Lake Murray. It also is an important transportation route connecting the port of Charleston with the Upstate.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.