It is now painfully clear that Charleston faces an existential crisis from storms and flooding. Irma provided the latest evidence that even a tropical storm can inflict extensive damage on a poorly prepared community.
It has also become discouragingly obvious that our elected leaders and public administrators are unwilling or unable to undertake a building program on the scale necessary to mitigate water damage. Most of those who have weighed in on the subject claim that creating a resilient Charleston is simply too expensive.
This attitude of acquiescence and defeatism is precisely the reason we are in the vulnerable position we are today. But despite the pervasive negativity we’ve heard, there are obvious funding sources that could easily cover the costs of a comprehensive, fast-paced storm and flood initiative.
Moving forward requires that we answer two questions. First, which projects must we undertake and how much will they cost? The Post and Courier reported this week that city of Charleston officials initially claimed that they did not have a list, much less costs — even though Charleston has seen a debilitating increase in flooding over the past few decades. Subsequently, the city’s chief resilience officer announced that, in fact, they do have an estimate — roughly $1 billion for city projects and another $1 billion to shore up state-owned infrastructure.
I reviewed the past few years of newspaper articles covering drainage and storm needs and identified about $1.7 billion worth of projects for the city and its immediate environs. These include high-profile efforts like rebuilding, raising and extending the Low Battery, relieving flooding on Main Road between Highway 17 and Maybank, reducing flooding in the Church Creek basin, and dealing with rising water in the medical district. All told, the city’s $2 billion projection looks reasonable.
This leads to the next question: Where is the money going to come from? It appears that $400 million (give or take) is already secure, leaving a “storm funding” gap of $1.3 billion. This is not chicken feed, but neither is it the insurmountable obstacle that commentators like Brian Hicks or officials with the city Engineering Division describe.
There are a dozen or more obvious funding opportunities. Collectively, they exceed the amount needed to safeguard Charleston over the coming decades. They include federal sources like FEMA disaster mitigation funds, TIGER grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation and Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) funding. Substantial support is also available from the state. Last session, the S.C. Legislature increased the gas tax — generating an additional $600 million that will flow to the SCDOT annually. Loans and grants from S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) are also possibilities.
On that point, Chip Limehouse asserted in Wednesday’s Post and Courier that it was not “plausible” to use the $400 million allocated for I-526 to repair the Low Battery. This statement exemplifies the lack of energy and creativity, and the misinformation, that has plagued flood response efforts for too long. As former Rep. Limehouse knows, the SCDOT commissioners must identify these projects as state priorities (and who could argue that they are not?) and the STIB board must vote to direct those funds to this critical need. The board did exactly this in 2012 when it allocated $88 million to pay for drainage improvements on the Septima Clark Parkway.
Locally, Charleston County anticipates receiving $2.1 billion in new revenues from the new additional half-cent sales tax approved last year. Localities also receive a sizable stream of revenue from accommodation taxes. Both funding streams could be used to reduce flooding.
Tax increment finance districts (TIF) — funded by increased real estate values in acres that are redeveloping — have been used for drainage projects and could be deployed more extensively. If there is a gap left to fill, local governments could supplement with an increase in property taxes.
There is no truth to the assertion that we cannot afford to protect our community from storms and flooding in the future. The deficiency is not a lack of funding, but a lack of political will.
In the late 1990s I attended a meeting between Arthur Ravenel Jr. and the late business leader, Eddie Buck. Eddie was chairman of the State Ports Authority at the time. Arthur was there to discuss the possibility of moving the proposed Global Gateway terminal from the tip of Daniel Island to the Navy Base across the river. Eddie was receptive, but identified a number of obstacles. After hearing those objections, Arthur said, “Eddie, if you want to do it, you can do it.” And he did.
So it is with flood mitigation in Charleston. If our leaders want to do it, they can do it. There are no insurmountable barriers. The only challenge is finding the energy and courage to take it on.
Dana Beach is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.