COLUMBIA – Two decades of anguish over how to pay for a new Cooper River bridge ended Tuesday with the state’s firm commitment to build it.
State transportation officials voted to proceed with a $215 million federal loan, the last puzzle piece needed to complete the funding package for an eight-lane bridge.
“It’s a done deal,” said state Sen. Arthur Ravenel, R-Mount Pleasant, who sits on the bank board. “It’s been 20 years in the making. Twenty years. I’m delighted. It’s so good to get it done before I died, really.”
With Tuesday’s vote of the state Infrastructure Bank Board, $636 million has been raised for a bridge, which designers say can be built for $631 million.
Work on the bridge, the most expensive construction project in state history, will begin after a July 2 ceremony.
“We today are telling people that the bridge is going to be built. Period,” said Howard “Champ” Covington, chairman of the bank board.
All else now is expected to be anti-climactic – as far as funding, anyway. As early as today, State Ports Authority board members are expected to vote to contribute their share of the funding.
The S.C. Transportation Department still must vote on an additional commitment of money, but it will, said Morgan Martin, chairman of the Transportation Commission. The bank board also must vote again June 28 to finalize loan agreements.
Also that day, transportation officials expect to sign a contract with the low bidder for a single, eight-lane bridge with diamond-shaped towers soaring as high as 500 feet over the skyline – twice as high as the existing bridges.
“This is terrific news,” Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said after the bank board meeting. “We can now say with certainty that a new, full Cooper River bridge will be constructed.”
That includes bicycle and pedestrian lanes, he said.
Mount Pleasant Mayor Harry Hallman was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached.
Bank board attorneys finished hammering out details of the complex package of federal, state and local tax money just hours before Tuesday’s meeting.
Before then, the bank board had agreed to spend $325 million and the federal government $96.6 million for a total of $421.6 million. The bank board agreed to commit to a $215 million federal loan, bringing the total to $636.6 million -enough for an eight-lane bridge.
But until Tuesday, bank board members had not agreed to the details of how to raise $15 million each year to pay off the loan. As a result, they refused to commit to the loan.
According to a draft agreement approved Tuesday, Charleston County will contribute $3 million a year for 25 years. Charleston County Council has not decided how to raise the money, but most members support a half-cent sales tax that would also fund other road projects, preserve green space and rescue CARTA, the regional public transportation agency that runs out of its private subsidy in 2003.
The Transportation Department has agreed to pay $7 million a year, which comes out of the annual cost to maintain the existing bridges. The SPA was to contribute $5 million a year, though board members have been reluctant to commit the money.
Covington said Tuesday that the bank board will accept $3 million each year from the SPA, with the bank board and Transportation Department splitting the remaining $2 million.
He said he anticipates the SPA board will approve the $3 million commitment today.
Transportation officials will soon negotiate a design-and-build contract with Palmetto Bridge Constructors, the low bidder of three competing teams.
Of two designs Palmetto submitted, a single, eight-lane bridge with diamond-shaped towers costs the least, transportation officials confirmed.
Riley said he’s relieved that potential obstacles to the bridge seem to have disappeared.
While Riley, Hallman and state officials have differed over design, it is the bridge’s expense that has delayed its construction some 20 years after it was first proposed.
“It’s such an immense, very expensive project that cobbling the money to do it, it’s just been an agony,” Ravenel said.