Charleston City Council gave the green light to the next step of a drainage project meant to keep the Septima P. Clark Parkway and surrounding neighborhoods dry, work whose cost has ballooned by millions of dollars since its price tag was recalculated late last year.
The project was deemed "too big to fail" by Councilman Peter Shahid, one of several members who voted for the work despite concerns over the cost overruns, which range into the tens of millions. The project, which has already put huge drainage tunnels underground, has so far represented a combined investment of almost $95 million from city, state and federal governments since it began in 2009.
Council voted to award a contract for the next phase of work, which will complete an escape hatch for about 200,000 gallons of water to drain into the Ashley River at lower tides each minute. Without this penultimate phase, the fourth so far, none of the tunnels drilled deep into the marl under Charleston Peninsula would serve any purpose. The recipient, Conti Construction Inc., had extended its deadline for a response from the city as elected officials worked to understand how the project had suddenly become so expensive.
Meanwhile, the city is now tasked with finding funding for a $26 million shortfall — money that will come mostly from a drainage fund unless officials can find another source. Council members worried about the effect that taking roughly $18 million out of that account would have on future work needed elsewhere in the city.
"We’re not going out of business here, we’re just going to have to think outside of the box and find the other sources of revenue to fund the projects that we need," Mayor John Tecklenburg said.
Tuesday night's vote did not include the final fifth phase of the project. Without that, the new system won't work well during higher tides. Phase five would also install three new pumps so the basin could be drained at a higher rate of 360,000 gallons per minute.
"I'm very concerned where this leads us," Councilman Gary White said. "I get the sense nobody even really thinks we're going to get phase five done."
Council members first found out in December that the project would be significantly over budget, to the tune of $30 million. That overrun was later revised upward again, though it incorporated some items that had already been paid for but not counted, to a $43 million increase over the original cost estimate inked a decade ago.
The project has been affected by inflation in construction and materials costs; an original budget that didn't account for additional costs when the work was split into phases; and funding sources that served to scramble the sequence of the work and push some of the most crucial, and expensive work into the final sections.
The work, however, will serve to drain about 650 acres of the peninsula, including the Crosstown, a vital artery for the city.
The total cost for the work is expected to approach $200 million.