Benjamin at Congress

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin testifies Tuesday before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.

In October 2015, what was a tragic occurrence in Columbia — the massive rain event that flooded out homes and property and killed six people — nearly turned catastrophic when the Columbia Canal was breached, threatening to take out the city’s primary water source.

While officials were able to scramble to construct a rock dam to stop water from flowing out of the canal — a rock dam that remains in use to this day — the yawning 60-foot breach remains in the western canal wall along the Congaree River, nearly four years after the flood.

A repair of the canal has been slow in coming, long snared in a web of governmental red tape.

On Tuesday, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin pushed for federal help in repairing the canal. The mayor appeared on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. at a hearing of the U.S. House Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee.

Benjamin, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, was one of a number of state and local government leaders from across the nation who testified on how local leaders are responding to climate change in the wake of President Donald Trump’s intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. 

While Benjamin discussed a host of topics related to climate and the environment during Tuesday's hearing, he also offered written testimony to members of Congress about the issues the city has had in getting Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to fix the Columbia Canal.

“Over three years after the storm and with yet another hurricane season looming, the Columbia Canal is operating with temporary repairs and at diminished capacity with vulnerabilities that did not exist prior to the 2015 disaster,” Benjamin wrote in his full submitted testimony to the subcommittee. “The city estimates that repairing storm damage to the canal, including bringing it up to current standards and ensuring its resilience, will cost $169 million. FEMA counters that most of the damage to the Canal is not storm-related, arguing that it is due to regular wear and tear, and further counters that FEMA can only fund repairs for visible damage and estimates repairs for storm damage to the canal at $11 million.

“We feel our position is solid and backed up by extensive technical review. Regardless, something is clearly broken when the federal disaster assistance program cannot assist with repairs to the primary drinking water source for 375,000 people, five hospitals, six universities and colleges, and the Army’s primary and largest training base.”

Benjamin’s overture to Congress for federal help with the canal is unsurprising. In an April 1 conversation with Free Times, the mayor said he plans to call on Gov. Henry McMaster, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson to help get the federal ball rolling on the canal.

The mayor tells the paper he wants to encourage those Republican officials to “leverage their relationships with the president and FEMA to accelerate the redevelopment of the canal.”

Also as part of his full written testimony submitted to the House subcommittee, Benjamin touched on the idea of increased intercity passenger rail, touting it as a way to get cars — and their emissions — off the roadways.

While he noted that “intercity passenger rail travel will probably never fully replace airplane and automobile travel,” the mayor wrote he does think it could have success in pockets, even in the Palmetto State. But federal participation would be needed, he says.

“In South Carolina, I strongly believe that several corridors are ripe for the establishment of intercity passenger rail service, most notably Charleston-Columbia-Greenville and Charleston-Columbia-Charlotte,” Benjamin wrote. “Relatively modest investments in existing infrastructure along these corridors would result in intercity passenger rail service that is competitive with automobile and airplane travel.

"This investment would also pay the added dividend of increasing mobility and supporting economic development around intermediate stops in the economically struggling towns along these corridors."

High-speed rail has been in the news recently, as the state of California recently scaled-back its long-planned $77 billion bullet train project. Much closer to home, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has teased the idea of extending Charlotte’s commuter rail line into South Carolina to ferry fans to and from the Carolina Panthers' propose new headquarters and practice facility in the Palmetto State.

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