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Editorial: Low Battery seawall a chance for SC to invest in its own survival

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Water floods the Low Battery during Tropical Storm Irma on September 11, 2017. File/Matthew Fortner/Staff

On Tuesday, Charleston City Council will vote on a proposal to request $32 million in funds from the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank to help repair and strengthen the Low Battery seawall to protect against higher seas and stronger storms.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to ask, and state officials should be more than open to a relatively modest request to meet a pressing need that would help preserve both priceless history and one of South Carolina’s most potent tourism-driven moneymakers.

There are a couple of reasons why the SIB board might not be so amenable, however.

The most obvious one is the misguided I-526 extension, which after roughly a decade of wrangling seems finally to be more or less back on track with $420 million in state funding that was only recently — and grudgingly — approved by the SIB.

Gov. Henry McMaster had to step in to get that money approved. Even then, some SIB board members rightly worried that Charleston County wouldn’t be able to figure out how to meet its $305 million — and potentially much more costly — end of the bargain.

There are any number of projects that would be a better use of that state and local money, including the crumbling seawall that is almost the only line of defense between the next hurricane and a large portion of Charleston’s Historic District.

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The SIB might also try to argue that a seawall is not “transportation” infrastructure. That’s technically a fair point, although Murray Boulevard, which runs alongside most of the Low Battery, is a state road.

But if the word “transportation” becomes too much of a sticking point, it might be worth considering dumping that term in favor of a broader infrastructure bank or setting up some other entity capable of funding a broader array of critical investments.

That’s because South Carolina’s most costly infrastructure needs increasingly will be related to flood prevention and climate change mitigation, and not explicitly transportation related.

Charleston alone needs as much as $2 billion to fully prepare the city for a wetter future. Sea level rise will affect the rest of the South Carolina coast as well, and an increasing frequency of extreme weather events will impact us all.

It’s smarter and cheaper to prepare for disasters than to rebuild after the fact. And the Low Battery seawall project is a good opportunity for the SIB to set that precedent.

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