Charleston's hopes that federal stimulus funds would pay for a massive downtown drainage system were dashed Wednesday, making it unclear when the West Side residents and motorists who use the Crosstown Expressway will get long-sought relief from flooding.
The city had requested $146.3 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation, amounting to nearly 10 percent of the funding nationwide for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program.
Instead of $146.3 million, the city will get $10 million to improve the expressway, which is part of U.S. Highway 17.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley decided to look at the bright side Wednesday, saying he was "enormously pleased" with the grant award. Riley noted that the city will be one of only two grant recipients in the state.
"The fact is, there were over 1,400 applications for funding and 51 were funded," Riley said. "With that kind of competition, looking at it now, getting the whole grant funded was not a reasonable expectation."
"These 10 million dollars will open additional doors and future opportunities to obtaining all of the funding necessary," he said.
While Riley is hopeful that federal money will eventually pay for the 130-foot-deep tunnels and huge pumps needed to drain the 500-acre flood-prone area around the Crosstown Expressway, the current lack of funding makes it unclear when the work might happen.
The city already has spent more than $7 million on design and engineering work for the drainage project and was prepared to go out for bids next year, had the requested federal grant come through.
Riley said the flooding during heavy rains is largely due to the expressway itself, which was built in the 1960s, much of it on top of filled-in creek beds. He has taken the position that the federal government should be responsible for funding the drainage improvements, and said the $10 million grant award means that the federal government agrees.
"The reason it is so heartening is, it is a substantial federal acknowledgement of the federal responsibility for the Crosstown," Riley said. "Clearly, we won that argument, that this isn't a city drainage matter, but a federal responsibility."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation didn't share the mayor's point of view.
"We are not saying that," Cathy St. Denis said. "We are just saying that this grant met all criteria."
The city plans to meet with federal officials in the coming weeks to clarify how the $10 million can be spent. The master plan for drainage improvements includes a redesign of the Crosstown Expressway to transform it into what the city calls the Septima Clark Parkway, with improved intersections, landscaping, and pedestrian and bicycle paths.
"The full $10 million will go for road construction, not the flood control portion," St. Denis said.
The city had sought to convince federal officials that the drainage project was crucial, and of national interest, because flooding in the area blocks the only federal highway across the peninsula. The Crosstown is a key hurricane evacuation route and the route to the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center and the Medical University of South Carolina, which is the state's only Level One Trauma Center.
The price tag on Charleston's drainage plan is large because it involves creating a system of huge shafts and tunnels, 12 feet in diameter and deep below ground, that would be linked to a trio of massive pumps that could send 361,000 gallons of water per minute into the Ashley River.
Those pumps would drain floodwaters from about 20 percent of the Charleston peninsula, from the Ashley River to King Street, and from Hampton Park to MUSC.
Charleston Councilman William Dudley Gregorie represents most of the area the improvements would help.
"I think any amount of funding is good news," he said.
The city has spent about $40 million during the past two decades to address flooding problems, but the Crosstown Expressway area involves a much larger effort.
The price tag is roughly equal to the city's annual budget.
"We're just going to keep pushing until we get the funding," Riley said. "I am confident we will get it, and I will not rest until we do."
The other grant award in South Carolina, also for $10 million, was for the Interstate 73 project aimed at creating a new highway to Myrtle Beach from Interstate 95.
The money will go toward the cost of building a new interchange in Dillon County but is a small fraction of the $360 million requested.
There were 19 applications for projects around the state, worth nearly $1.3 billion. Charleston County had sought $40 million for improvements to Johnnie Dodds Boulevard, for example, but received no funding.
Charleston County Deputy Administrator Kurt Taylor said the lack of a grant won't delay improvements on Johnnie Dodds, from the Cooper River to Interstate 526, but it means local funding from the half-cent sales tax will be used.
"We will keep looking for federal money," he said. "Otherwise it will be paid for through the transportation sales tax."
Nationwide, much of the $1.5 billion in grant awards were for freight-rail improvements, light-rail projects and highway improvements.