Exit 197 on Interstate 26

Work on Exit 197 on Interstate 26 is running ahead of its expected Summer 2018 completion date, according to officials. Some say the new interchange will be the "gateway to the Lowcountry." Banks Construction/Provided

Katie Arrington and Joe Cunningham have at least one thing in common: They both want to show us the federal money.

And that’s a marked improvement over some of South Carolina’s recent representation.

During their debate last week, the two 1st Congressional District candidates talked about the need to secure federal funding for myriad local projects.

Arrington, the Republican, mentioned leveraging federal money for flooding fixes, and Democrat Cunningham suggested using D.C. dollars to make road improvements.

What refreshingly old-school ideas. They couldn’t be more correct.

Right now, the state Department of Transportation is working on a $480 million project to improve a 6-mile stretch of Interstate 26 between Montague Avenue and Heriot Street. The planned $400 million bus rapid transit line between Summerville and Charleston hinges on federal support. Of course, the county needs another $300 million, give or take, to finish Interstate 526.

And Charleston estimates the drainage improvements and seawalls needed will cost $2 billion or so.

Local governments have no way to raise such obscene amounts of money, and it would take the state decades to fund these projects alone. But all that cash is merely a drop in the federal bucket.

Good to know both of the 1st District candidates recognize that, because the Lowcountry needs more help.

Can’t do it alone

For years, people have complained that local officials didn’t plan for the infrastructure needed to accommodate our ridiculous growth rate.

OK, it’s hard to argue that point.

But in reality, part of the problem stems from a federal political system that has in some ways not lived up to its responsibilities. And South Carolina had something to do with that.

Former Sen. Jim DeMint went on a crusade years ago to stop federal earmarks, little nuggets of pork in the U.S. budget. He did a great job stopping some of the shameless largess that flows out of Washington. But he also pretty much shut down political horse-trading and, unfortunately, some infrastructure funding.

The State Infrastructure Bank rightly gets credit for the Ravenel Bridge, but the $700 million span could not have been built without a dose of federal money courtesy of then-Sen. Fritz Hollings.

The state Department of Transportation has done an admirable job of leveraging the maximum amount of federal highway dollars available to South Carolina every year, and even collects some that other states fail to secure with local matches.

We need it, seeing as how South Carolina has one of the largest road systems in the country.

But other sources of funding have become scarce. How can Charleston fund $2 billion in flooding improvements when its entire operating budget is only $200 million a year, most of which goes to police, fire and garbage pick-up?

Bottom line, it can’t. For such large endeavors, local communities need help from the state and, perhaps more importantly, the federal government. But for too long, Congress has been stalled.

A win is a win

South Carolina still gets more money from Washington than it sends, but that advantage has shrunk in recent years.

In the 20th century, Strom Thurmond practically built this state with federal money. But after the earmark witch hunt, Charleston’s port nearly shut down when the state couldn’t get federal money to have the harbor dredged, a necessity since newer cargo ships have deeper drafts.

South Carolina had to put up much of the money for the port, and then-Mayor Joe Riley had to lobby the Obama administration to keep the money flowing.

While Washington has been mired in partisan bickering, problems mount that could exacerbate our infrastructure needs. The Highway Trust Fund is currently sustained with a series of general fund transfers. Without a permanent fix, federal money to maintain roads could drop by 40 percent after 2020. And the federal Mass Transit Account could go broke shortly after that.

Not to mention the increasing difficulty of securing federal money for projects like dredging and drainage repairs.

So it’s good that both Arrington and Cunningham are practical on this point and show much-needed common sense on infrastructure funding. Looks like whichever one wins, we all win.

And frankly, Congress could use an infusion of practicality.

Because sitting on principles is all well and good until you’re doing it on the highway for two hours a day.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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