Gov. Henry McMaster plans to include $10 million in his upcoming executive budget to help fix flooding in downtown Charleston's medical district.
His budget is a wish list, not settled policy since budget-writers in the Statehouse control what gets funded and what doesn't. But a boost from a governor who has a positive working relationship with legislators is a good step, supporters of the project said.
The $10 million would connect drainage in Charleston's medical district to the existing Spring-Fishburne drainage project, a massive underground pipe beneath the Septima P. Clark Parkway that will eventually end with a pump to the Ashley River.
Without the connection, the hospital district could be left waiting several years for another drainage tunnel project, called Calhoun West.
Hospital officials and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg have been promoting the drainage fix for months. The medical district is subject to severe flooding in a hard enough rain, particularly when the tide is high.
The area is home to the Medical University of South Carolina’s hospital, Roper Hospital and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.
"We feel confident at this point we’re going to be able to proceed with this project," said Tecklenburg, who said he's grateful for the governor's support. "It's so critical to the hospital district, and I think everyone recognizes that."
After Hurricane Irma in 2017, MUSC workers and patients had to traverse the flooded campus in boats.
Medical University President Dr. David Cole wrote in a February letter to McMaster that hospital services could be compromised "in the very near future" if drainage were not improved. Similar letters were sent by Roper and state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston.
Together, they asked the state to commit federal Housing and Urban Development funds to the project, though South Carolina cannot give that money out yet because guidance on how to do so has not been published by HUD.
"Flood mitigation has been a priority of Gov. McMaster’s, and considering the urgency and merit of this project, he simply doesn’t believe we have time to wait (for HUD funds)," spokesman Brian Symmes wrote in an email to The Post and Courier.
"He’s proud to include this funding in his executive budget and is confident that the General Assembly will agree that it’s a worthy investment," Symmes added.
Tecklenburg made a pitch to the governor to support the project when McMaster toured the Spring-Fishburne tunnel during a meeting of the S.C. Floodwater Commission in February. The city of Charleston is so hopeful that the medical district extension will be funded that it's already spent more than $500,000 on engineering plans, Tecklenburg said, so work can be started as soon as money for the construction comes though.
McMaster will suggest putting the $10 million forward as a one-time investment from the state's general fund that would become part of the budget for MUSC, a public institution.
Whether that happens is now up to state lawmakers.
Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said the process of creating the budget is just beginning. He noted many other areas of the state also have flooding issues.
"I'm certainly supportive of fixing some of the flooding issues in Charleston," Smith said. "I'm probably more interested in a more comprehensive approach to the process than fixing one isolated area."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, could not immediately be reached by phone.
Funding the project this legislative session, which begins in January, would ultimately save money, Tecklenburg argued. It would allow workers to dig the new shaft in the next two years, before the larger tunnel is operating and filled with water.
Supporters were optimistic that will happen.
"Gov. McMaster has really developed a good relationship with the General Assembly on both sides of the aisle, and that's important when you submit these kinds of steps and he endorses them," said Mark Sweatman, a lobbyist for MUSC.
"They take Gov. McMaster’s recommendations and priorities seriously," he added.