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Flood waters inundate Ashley Avenue in the heart of Charleston's medical district in June 2018. File/Wade Spees/Staff

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham is pushing legislation to address the chronic flooding that plagues downtown Charleston's medical district.

A bill filed Tuesday would create a new Department of Veterans Affairs community infrastructure program to help pay for state and local projects that could benefit VA medical facilities at risk.

That includes the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston's flood-prone medical mile. 

Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot legally help pay for state and local infrastructure projects, such as Charleston's ongoing Crosstown drainage tunnel work, unless those projects are on VA-owned property.

Cunningham, D-Charleston, a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, contends the federal agency should be allowed to work more closely with surrounding communities to both fund and join in partnerships to address infrastructure needs.

"The Lowcountry needs serious investment in flood mitigation, especially in Charleston's medical district," Cunningham told The Post and Courier.

Named the VA Community Infrastructure Act, the bill would give the Secretary of Veterans Affairs authority on how funding would be allocated. The bill does require preference be given to medical facilities in areas with large and rapidly-growing veteran populations, such as Charleston.

The Charleston VA Medical Center currently provides care for approximately 78,000 veterans living along the South Carolina and Georgia coast.

Officials at the Charleston VA Medical Center declined to comment, but Cunningham's office confirmed staff members had met with hospital officials about the legislation.

The bill comes at a time when flooding is becoming an increasingly critical issue for downtown Charleston's medical facilities. Working with the city, Medical University of South Carolina President Dr. David Cole wrote a Feb. 5 letter to Gov. Henry McMaster saying that flooding in Charleston's medical district is threatening to compromise care

"There is increasing concern that our level of service to our patients may, in the very near future, be compromised unless immediate action is taken," Cole wrote. 

Cunningham's effort contends flooding threatens to compromise Charleston's medical district where three hospitals operate: the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, Roper Hospital and MUSC, the region's only Level I trauma center.

Additionally, MUSC is also on the cusp of opening an almost $400 million children's hospital in the district.

The bill's impact would stretch beyond the Lowcountry since at least 16 VA medical centers from Texas to Virginia have had to close temporarily because of flooding.

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Florida U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, joined Cunningham in sponsoring the bill. Bay Pines VA Healthcare System is located in Bilirakis's district.

Cunningham met recently with Charleston officials to learn more about ongoing drainage projects and challenges. He was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat from the Virgin Islands who chairs the New Democrats Coalition Infrastructure Task Force.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said he supports Cunningham's effort.

The city is hoping to extend a drainage shaft to Earhardt Street as part of its ongoing Crosstown drainage project, a move that would help improve drainage around the VA Hospital, Roper and MUSC.

Mark Wilbert, chief resilience officer for the city of Charleston, said cost estimates for that project alone are likely to start at $10 million.

Robert Behre contributed to this report.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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