Since winning an unprecedented tenth term just over a year ago, Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. has not stopped working on fulfilling the promises he made during his campaign. While this is certainly expected, what comes as a surprise is the oddly feverish way that he is pursuing not only two projects that he campaigned on but one costly endeavour that he didn’t.
For Riley’s final term in office, the mayor has noted that he will continue to work to end the flooding of Charleston’s streets, especially the well-traveled Septima Clark Parkway. Prior to being re-elected, Mayor Riley began efforts to renovate the Gaillard Auditorium.
In addition to these two massive projects — together totaling nearly $300 million — the mayor recently received Charleston City Council’s support in asking County Council to hand over control of the much-belabored completion of I-526 to the city. This project alone holds an estimated price tag of around $500 million. This brings the total amount of public works projects that the mayor is committed to finishing to $800 million.
While the mayor should be commended for moving forward with the Gaillard and Crosstown projects in the midst of an economy that is best described as “shaky,” the problem is that, perhaps in a quest to have these items finished before he finally leaves office in 2016, Mayor Riley may have overextended the City’s capability to pay for these projects. And if that turns out to be true, this could leave Charlestonians holding the bag for hundreds of millions of dollars of uncompleted work while Joe rides off into the sunset.
To be honest, it’s not hard to imagine that America’s longest-serving living mayor would want to end his four-decade career on a high note. But what is hard to imagine is why even staunch, longtime supporters would be willing to risk the City of Charleston’s long-term viability on what amounts to a series of vanity projects, with no clear funding set aside and only vague promises of funding being available in the future.
The Crosstown, which spent most of the year causing headaches for anyone driving anywhere near it, has almost completed its “beautification” phase, but it still floods whenever it rains longer than 10 minutes or so. Critics have rightly questioned the mayor’s decision to work on the cosmetic aspects of the road before fixing the busy thoroughfare’s more pressing flooding problems. Perhaps the best thing about the Crosstown is that further projects have not started because all funding is not yet available.
The same is not true for the Gaillard. Construction has already begun on that project, even though only half of the estimated $142 million price tag is covered through the city’s coffers. The other half, according to Riley, will come from private donors. And as of now, there is no clear indication of how many private donations exist and how much longer the “quiet phase” of fundraising will continue. (The project has apparently received a $20 million private pledge, but that still leaves millions in needed donations.) Again, critics claim that Riley is jeopardizing the funding of other more pressing projects in his quest to finish the Gaillard before he leaves office in 2016. After all, if those promised donors don’t turn up, the City of Charleston will have to pay the unpaid balance for the project.
But it is the ever controversial completion of I-526, that is the sudden contender for Mayor Riley’s greatest achievement or his worst mistake. At the very least, it is certainly his last and biggest gamble.
Although the State Infrastructure Bank recently approved the spending of an estimated $558 million to complete the project, one wonders if any overruns would become the City’s problem. However, Mayor Riley’s solution to this potential problem has been to state that there will not be overruns because whichever contractor is hired will simply stay within the budget and besides, the state would not leave the road unfinished once started. Having a contingency policy that merely defaults to the planned outcome is not good public policy. In fact, with regard to the last great projects of Mayor Joe Riley’s four-decade tenure, one cannot help but wonder if good public policy is at the heart of any of them or if there is simply a cynical desire for Riley to further establish his legacy.
If these projects end up being wildly successful, Mayor Riley rides off into the sunset a hero to the city, but if any one of them is a failure, he risks nothing except that some people will see his 40-year career end in a massive overreach of Charleston’s potential.