Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier
It is situations exactly like this, when drivers have to forge the flooded Crosstown expressway, that raise the ire not only of the motorists, but also West Side residents and business owners who have to try to keep their properties dry.
When the rains come and the tide is high, waves of water wash into Mamie Poole’s Charleston home, and there’s no going anywhere without getting sopping wet.
So forgive her if she’s not doing cartwheels over the city’s plan to spend $11.3 million to improve the nearby Septima Clark Parkway, better known as “the Crosstown.”
To Poole and many other West Side residents, the only project that counts is fixing the serious drainage problems that have churned for decades around this main route across the peninsula.
The project doesn't solve the flooding, and that has Poole and others deeply frustrated. The city says it doesn’t have the $146 million needed to remedy the problem. But when residents see plans to drop $142 million to renovate the Gaillard Auditorium and build city offices, they start to wonder where the city’s priorities are.
“It is very unfair when we need so much help,” said Poole, who poured concrete around her shrubs to keep them from washing away. “It’s all right to make things pretty. But what’s the use of beautifying the Crosstown when we’re all living under water?”
Mayor Joe Riley said he sympathizes with the neighborhood’s plight and is doing his best to get the money needed to correct the drainage issues. But it’s not as simple as pulling cash from one project to fund another.
The Gaillard project includes a $20 million gift from a private donor and millions more in financing that is tied directly to the auditorium and office work. The city couldn’t swap out the money even if it wanted to, the mayor said.
“If we didn’t do the Gaillard,” he said, “we still couldn’t do the drainage.”
Riley also is adamant that federal and state governments need to do their share — a large share — to pay for the drainage work. After all, Riley said, it was federal officials who opted to carve this “ill-designed, ill-conceived” swath of U.S. Highway 17 through a low-
lying stretch in the heart of the peninsula in 1960s.
Slapping an impermeable, 100-foot-wide thoroughfare onto an already moist expanse created the drainage nightmare that exists today, he said.
“This is a major national civil engineering initiative,” he said. “It requires a federal investment because it is a federal responsibility.”
Catering to tourists?
These arguments fall a little flat with people like Erica Johnson, who has watched generations of children sometimes forced to trudge through dirty, knee-deep water on their way to school.
Or congregation members at Nichols Chapel AME Church, who can’t find a place to park for Sunday worship when the waters rise. Or corner store owner Imad Yousef, who has to scramble to move his inventory when the floodwaters seep through his door.
Albert Nelson lives across the street from Poole on President Street, just feet from the Crosstown. Nelson has dealt with the grimy overflow for more than 40 years, and he’s heard excuses for the drainage-work delays that entire time. Like many in the area, his perception is that the city’s priorities lie elsewhere.
“The city is more concerned about the tourists,” he said, echoing a popular refrain here. “They are not very concerned with the people who make up their tax base.”
Not so, said Riley and other officials. The mayor pointed to the recent opening of the $7.3 million Arthur W. Christopher Community Center on the West Side as evidence of the city’s commitment to residents.
The city also has spent some $84 million on major drainage projects over the past 20 years, alleviating flooding in several areas, from Ardmore in West Ashley to Calhoun and East Bay streets on the peninsula, said Laura Cabiness, Charleston public services director.
The Crosstown remains a priority project, but one that is much more costly and complex, officials said.
The drainage basin for the area covers 500 acres and will require elaborate tunnels and a massive pumping system to effectively move stormwater. The project’s cost is roughly equal to the city’s annual budget.
Anticipated revenues from the Gaillard project could provide up to $30 million the city eventually could use as matching funds for the drainage project. The city already has spent $7 million on engineering work so the project will be ready to roll when federal money becomes available, Riley said.
“Our job is to get into that budget,” he said, “and I think our argument is very compelling.”
Riley has not only talked up federal responsibility for the road with transportation officials and the Army Corps of Engineers, he also has met twice with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the project’s importance in the event of a catastrophe.
The road, after all, is the main artery to get to the region’s only Level 1 trauma center — Medical University Hospital — and the Veterans Administration hospital, he said.
This groundwork helped the city land the $10 million grant that will underwrite the upcoming project, which will include repaving, a new landscaped median, brick crosswalks, sidewalks and lighting, Riley said.
New drainage pipes also will be installed. Those pipes eventually will connect with the future tunnels and pumping station. City officials view this as the first phase of work on the problem, the mayor said.
City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the $11.3 million contract for that project, which is to go to O.L. Thompson Construction.
Seeking a dry drive
To some, however, this phase still sounds a lot like a homeowner painting his ceiling because he doesn’t have enough money to fix the leak in his roof — a cosmetic fix that just hides the underlying problem.
Several people who depend on the road for their daily commute said they would gladly look at drab surroundings if they didn’t have to worry about white-knuckle rides through rain-swollen streets.
One commuter jokingly suggested the city use the $10 million to buy a barge to salvage swamped cars during storms. Another said the city would be better off buying lottery tickets with the money in hope of funding the full drainage work.
Doug Reynolds drives the Crosstown five days a week commuting between his Mount Pleasant home and work on Kiawah Island. He can understand the desire to beautify a road that serves as a main gateway to the community.
But Reynolds also lost a car to the Crosstown three years ago when deep and swift-moving saltwater swamped his Toyota’s engine. He thinks the city should dump every dime it can into drainage work, or at least set up a warning system that would alert motorists to dangerous water on the road.
“A totaled car or personal injuries due to flooding on the Crosstown will do a lot more damage to a local resident’s or tourist’s experience in Charleston than a lack of landscaping and bike paths,” he said.
Arthur Lawrence, president of the West Side Neighborhood Association, said people are simply fed up with the situation as it exists. And while folks are quick to blame Riley, they should also fault City Council members, state lawmakers and others who have been in a position to do something about the problem for years and didn’t, he said.
City Councilman James Lewis represents a portion of the neighborhood and has traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funding for the project. He said city officials have done everything in their power to get this work done.
But after 16 years on the council, Lewis worries that the project will never see the light of day until citizens put pressure on Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers to open up the purse strings.
“The city cannot do this on its own,” Lewis said. “Unless we get some of these other entities to step up to the plate and come up with the money, I just don’t foresee this project getting done.”
An earlier version of this story needed clarification. A sentence in the story about flooding in the crosstown area should have said the improvement project also will involve storm water control.