Rev. Randolph Miller says parishoners in his church know all too well the flooding troubles of Charleston’s primary east-west highway.
Nichols Chapel AME Church is located a block off the Septima Clark Expressway (U.S. 17). When summer thunderstorms hit the peninsula, the highway’s drainage problems flood nearby Bogard Street, causing Bogard to resemble a canal more than a paved road.
“No, I’m not Moses,” Miller said, “I can’t stretch forth the rod and the water will part.”
Miller and other Charleston community leaders appeared in front of the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank board in a Wednesday hearing. They are trying to get the state to loan them $88 million to build an underground system that would gather the runoff water and pump it into the nearby Ashley River.
The bank’s board agreed it would take a look at the problem. However, it’s not certain when any funding will come down, as it is already swamped with loan requests and short on funds.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley led the group of supporters making a presentation to the bank’s board. He said, when the highway floods, it creates a dangerous situation for the estimated 60,000 drivers who use the road each day.
“This is a broken piece of infrastructure that desperately needs to be fixed,” Riley said, “It threatens the lives, safety, and health of our citizens.”
Riley said Charleston is planning to come up with about 43 percent of the project’s estimated $154 million cost through local dollars and matching federal funds. The city also plans to issue bond anticipation notes in expectation that the bank would provide funding for four years beginning in 2016.
“This is not a shovel-ready project. It’s a shovel-dirty project,” State Sen. Chip Campsen (R-Columbia) said, pointing out that the city is already on minimal improvements even if it does not receive the loan.
The Charleston delegation left immediately after the board promised it would examine their request. However, once they emptied out, board officials wondered if a loan was possible anytime soon. The problem: the bank has already received more than $973 million in loan requests, including $329 million the bank has deemed qualified for a future loan. In January, the bank had $9.5 million on hand, although it could quickly raise bonds to get more, if needed.
Traditionally, the board funds projects in the order they are approved. Several panel members expressed reservations about letting Charleston jump ahead of other projects, most notably loans to Berkeley and Dorchester counties.
“There seems to be some confusion now as to whether the Septima Clark project will jump ahead of these projects or queue up in line behind them,” said Rep. Chip Limehouse (R-Charleston), a founding member of the bank’s board, “In my mind, we have already set for priority funding these two projects.”
Berkeley County is hoping to build the Sheeps Island Parkway, which would connect I-26 north of Summerville with U.S. 176 near Cane Bay. That $116 million project was previously considered “top priority” by the bank whenever it could raise the necessary funds. Dorchester County has also qualified for $213 million worth of projects, most notably the Berlin Myers Parkway in Summerville.
In a possible break, Dorchester County administrator Jason Ward said his county had since lowered its request to $125 million– coincidentally a decrease of $88 million (the same amount Charleston says it needs).
Limehouse said it’s unlikely they would allow Charleston to move ahead of others on the list. Several board members do plan to visit the area next week to evaluate the project before making a final decision on whether it would qualify for a loan.
Limehouse emphasized he does support the project, but wants the state to get its money’s worth. “What we want to ensure is that, when the project is completed, we don’t alleviate the flooding problem in one part of the city and aggravate the flooding problem in another part of the city,” he said after the meeting.
Several state Department of Transportation officials also questioned whether a better drainage system would even stop the flooding in nearby neighborhoods, pointing out the entire area was built on top of a drained marsh. The SCDOT does support the Septima Clark project.
Limehouse said the Infrastructure Bank system is working despite its current funding issues. He said federal officials are looking to South Carolina’s bank for help as the Obama Administration works on a proposal to create a national version of the bank.