Politics & Government

Deal reached to push long-delayed Charleston interstate project forward

South Carolina State House. 1/9/19
South Carolina State House. 1/9/19 tglantz@thestate.com

South Carolina’s financing arm for major road projects and Charleston County reached an agreement Thursday to build a long-delayed extension of Interstate 526.

After a nearly two-hour executive session, the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank voted 5-2 Thursday to sign a new contract with the state Transportation Department and Charleston County to help pay for the roughly $725 million project, extending I-526 from West Ashley onto Johns and James islands.

Under the new deal, the Infrastructure Bank will pay $380 millionof the project’s costs. Charleston County and the state Transportation Department will cover the rest of the cost — more than $300 million.

The county will pay its share through several funding sources, including its transportation and sales tax, the bank said. The deal states all payments will be made at the same time, a measure to ensure all parties pay their share.

The project has been mired in controversy for years, delayed since 2007 over disputes over who would pay how much, leading the Infrastructure Bank to kill an agreement last summer.

Proponents say the project will alleviate traffic in one of the Lowcountry’s heavily congested areas. However, opponents say extending the interstate only will lead to more residential development and could hurt the environment.

Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, opposed the deal along with the state’s former Commerce Department chief Joe Taylor. However, Leatherman pushed back against suggestions he opposed the project altogether.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Leatherman said. “I’ve got to be convinced the county will put up their requirement of the funding. We have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers of this state.”

The Infrastructure Bank’s vote is likely to spark a legal challenge to block the interstate’s extension. Any legal fees and costs will be covered by Charleston County, according to the new agreement.

Charleston County Commission chairman Elliott Summey said Thursday the agreement will be approved at his council’s meeting Thursday. “We look forward to starting the permitting process in the morning,” Summey said.

After years of delays, the bank revived the I-526 project in October, negotiating a new agreement with Charleston and the Transportation Department. The project also received a key endorsement from Gov. Henry McMaster, who was sworn into office Wednesday for his first four-year term.

In his inaugural speech, the Republican governor did not mention I-526 but promised more investment in infrastructure.

“Over and over, we are recognized as one of the best places in the country to do business — and to visit or vacation,” he said. “To continue and accelerate this economic prosperity, we must keep taxes low, eliminate suffocating regulations and invest in infrastructure.”

Fighting to keep I-526 alive has been a lonely fight, bank board member Chip Limehouse of Charleston said Thursday. But, the former Republican state representative added, “It’s going to happen now.

“This is going to be a good day for Charleston County and a really good day for the state.”

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.