Charleston’s City Council dealt Mayor John Tecklenburg at least a temporary blow by pushing off his effort to seek $32 million from the State Infrastructure Bank to help raise the city's Low Battery seawall by 2½ to 3 feet.
Instead, council members urged city staff to review the merits of applying for a bank grant to cover about $43 million in cost overruns on the city's ongoing Spring-Fishburne drainage project.
Several council members criticized Tecklenburg's communication with them about the SIB application. At Tuesday's council meetings, many said while the mayor has worked with staff on the application for months, Monday was the first that they heard about it.
Councilman Keith Waring said the approximately $43 million deficit on the Spring-Fishburne project should be a priority, and that in the year since city staff learned about cost overruns there has not been a plan to address it. Waring said he also thinks describing the Low Battery project as a highway project is "untruthful."
"Intellect and integrity matters, and I feel like the people in Columbia will look at this and laugh at us," Waring said. "I'm in favor of going to SIB for highway projects but the Battery does not fit that criteria."
City Councilman Harry Griffin, who had flirted with running for mayor against Tecklenburg this year before deciding against it, agreed.
"This is an opportunity to show our city has no priorities on transportation," he said, pointing to other needed improvements such as Clements Ferry Road in Berkeley County.
Tecklenburg said the Low Battery project qualifies for SIB grant funding because it includes roadway improvements and addresses mobility. He said it also enhances economic development because the city's Battery is an "iconic" part of South Carolina tourism.
Tecklenburg also said the area's experience with requesting SIB grants for projects the bank has already provided funding isn't good. While the bank committed to spend $420 million to extend Interstate 526 project across James and Johns islands, it has refused to spend any more, even as the price tag rose to more than $700 million.
"Respectfully, we're making this more complicated than it has to be," Tecklenburg said. "We don't have anything to lose."
Tecklenburg said this is the first time the SIB board has sought applications for smaller projects — those that cost as little as $25 million — and the Low Battery project is "well-needed."
The first phase of the Low Battery project is scheduled to begin this winter, but Tecklenburg said a SIB grant would shave years off the expected timeline for completion, from about a decade to only a few years.
These grants require a match from local governments, and Tecklenburg said the city would match the $32 million from the state with $23 million already set aside. The city also would commit to using Accommodations Tax and Hospitality fees to make up the difference. For years, the city has put aside $2 million or $3 million in funding for the project.
Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said the Spring-Fishburne improvements — which include a new drainage tunnel to end flooding on the heavily traveled Septima Clark Parkway — are more of an economic driver for the city than the Low Battery. Councilman Bill Moody said the city should look to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding improvements to the Battery instead of the state.
City Council voted 9-4 in favor of deferring the vote. Tecklenburg, Griffin, Councilman Mike Seekings and Councilwoman Carol Jackson voted against the decision to delay the vote. Griffin said he would have cast his vote to instead apply to the SIB for Spring/ Fishburne funding.
City staff requested a meeting later this week to discuss how the city would fund a required match for a Spring-Fishburne SIB grant application. The bank has set next month as the deadline to apply.
On the Low Battery, work is expected to begin as early as January on the portion in the worst condition — the stretch between the U.S. Coast Guard base and Ashley Avenue, Tecklenburg said. The work not only would raise the seawall by as much as three feet but also would include sturdy posts that could be used to add about three more feet of barrier wall in the future for additional protection from storm surge.