In the race for mayor of Charleston, we would like to get the obvious question out of the way: What's the holdup on fixing the Crosstown, Joe?
"Well, it's a good question and one that doesn't lend itself to an easy answer," says Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who is serving his 36th year as mayor of Charleston. As the four candidates who are trying to unseat him will readily point out, Riley has had ample time to fix the chronic flooding on the Septima P. Clark Expressway, a stretch of U.S. Highway 17 built across the peninsula in 1964 and commonly called the Crosstown. This year, Riley's critics and opponents have raised a litany of complaints about his handling of the Crosstown snafu. They claim that he would rather spend federal stimulus money beautifying the Crosstown than fixing it (as he did with the better part of $12 million in February), that he is wasting the city's financial clout to fund a $142 million renovation of the Gaillard Auditorium, and that he only makes overtures to fix the Crosstown in election years.
Riley, for his part, says the problem is more complicated than a few storm drains and a tax hike. For one thing, the Crosstown is part of a federal highway and thus technically the responsibility of the federal government and the S.C. Department of Transportation. The same could be said of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.
Riley also says that other problem spots in the city's drainage infrastructure needed to be fixed before the expensive Crosstown issues could be addressed. He says a team of engineers determined the first priority was in the Ardmore subdivision off of Savannah Highway, where flooding sometimes caused coffee tables to float in people's homes. It took $5 million to fix that problem in 2000. Next came flooding at the intersection of East Bay and Calhoun streets, where the fix cost $15 million. And then there were major problems in the off-peninsula neighborhoods of Byrnes Down, Shadowmoss, and Willow Walk. Now, finally, the city can buckle down on the Crosstown. It has already spent $8 million drawing up plans to properly drain a 500-acre swath of land surrounding the Crosstown, and the estimated price tag for the elaborate system of pumps and underground shafts to the Ashley River is a whopping $154 million.
If re-elected, Riley promises to secure the funding and get construction started within the next four years.
And so goes Riley's apologia for three-and-a-half decades of high-tide traffic nightmares. Whether you believe him or not, you will have a chance to let him know what you think at the polls next month. Here's where the candidates stand:
William Dudley Gregorie is soft-spoken in person, but some of his criticisms of the incumbent are decidedly acerbic. He has butted heads with Riley more frequently on Charleston City Council than any of the other candidates have in their respective spheres of influence. Born in Charleston and educated in its public schools, Gregorie studied at Benedict College in Columbia, earned his master's degree at Howard University, and entered the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as an intern. He climbed the ranks and eventually spent eight years as the head of HUD's South Carolina office. He was elected to the City Council District 6 seat in 2009.
Qualifications: In his former role at HUD, Gregorie oversaw the distribution of more than $6 billion in federal funds across the state, including $400 million to expand the Medical University of South Carolina. On City Council, he kept his promise to improve transparency by introducing a successful ordinance to televise council meetings.
On Mayor Riley: Gregorie says it can be difficult for a career politician like Riley to maintain clear, independent judgment. He bills himself as "un-bought."
On Job Creation: Gregorie is on the board of the Horizon Foundation, which is looking to develop the land between Lockwood Drive, Fishburne Street, Hagood Avenue, and Spring Street for research, residential, office, and retail purposes. He says he pitched the idea to Riley more than a decade ago.
On Crime: Credit goes to the Charleston Police Department for bringing crime rates down, Gregorie says. He would work with the police to assess where the city stands and move from there.
On Flooding: Fixing crumbling infrastructure is Gregorie's No. 1 priority, from the Battery seawalk to the Crosstown. He says he could fund the Crosstown project without raising taxes by getting the State Ports Authority to pay a per-passenger fee for cruise ships in the harbor.
On Transportation: He is skeptical of the Riley-backed plan to block off a lane on the Ashley River Bridge to allow bicycle traffic.
On Cruise Ships: Gregorie has pushed back against Riley on this topic, preferring contractual limits on cruise ship numbers to the "promise and a handshake" agreement the city currently has with the State Ports Authority. He also thinks the ships should have to plug into an electrical source at the pier to decrease exhaust fumes.
Other Ideas: Gregorie says deepening the harbor will increase shipping traffic and create jobs. On Council, he proposed strengthening the city's laws against housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and family status, but he says the Riley administration swayed enough council members to kill the proposal.
David A. Farrow knows Charleston's stories, having worked as a journalist at the old News and Courier and as an editor at the Charleston Mercury. And drawing on his experiences as a novelist, radio talk show host, and downtown tour guide, he tells them with gusto. He speaks flintily and raises his voice while discussing what he sees as Riley's shortcomings, but he says he will be a good listener above all else.
Qualifications: Farrow has kept abreast of Charleston's politics for decades and would bring an outsider's edge to the mayor's office. "When I win the election, I will know I'm not the smartest person in the room," he says. "But the most effective leader rarely is. Instead, he knows who the smartest people are, and he brings them in and listens to them instead of telling them how it works."
On Mayor Riley: "The mayor is a statist, and he trusts big government, so he's always trying to do big-government things when smaller-government things will do just as well."
On Job Creation: Actively courting companies to build new facilities in Charleston is part of Farrow's plan. He also wants to find corporate partners to get involved with Charleston County schools.
On Crime: Statistics on crime might be inaccurate because crimes are underreported west of the Ashley, Farrow says. If elected, he would try to shift some police officers from tourist-district patrols to residential patrols in West Ashley and the East Side.
On Flooding: Farrow wants to wait for the S.C. Department of Transportation to finish its extension of Interstate 526, place a toll booth on the new road to pay for its construction, and ask the State Infrastructure Bank to fund the Crosstown project in return.
On Transportation: Farrow is critical of Riley's focus on the Gaillard Auditorium and says he would redirect money from aesthetics to infrastructure projects. As for bikes, he says, "This whole thing has just been governmented completely out of control. Use common sense and accept that you're on a bicycle on a road where cars haul ass and don't pay attention to you." He would test out the plan to repurpose a lane of the Ashley River Bridge for bike traffic by blocking it off with orange cones for six months and videotaping the lane to see how many people actually use it.
On Cruise Ships: Farrow favors moving the passenger port to the Columbus Street Terminal. He says an expansion at Union Pier would overwhelm the Ansonborough neighborhood.
On Term Limits: Mayors should be limited to two terms of six years each, whether consecutive or separate, Farrow says. "If you can't achieve your vision in 12 years, it's time to give somebody else a shot." He also wants to gradually decrease the mayor's salary from about $160,000 to $100,000.
Other Ideas: Farrow wants a complete, independent audit of all city department finances. He plans to save money in the long run by converting all city buses, police cars, and fire engines to run on natural gas. He would also cut the city's financial ties with the S.C. Aquarium.
Craig Jelks, an eighth-grade history teacher at Sangaree Middle School, is easily the liveliest speaker of all the candidates. "[Riley] represents the record player," Jelks says. "I represent the iPod." A native of Birmingham, Ala., he studied political science as an undergraduate at Howard University and earned his master's degree from Columbia University before moving to Charleston five years ago to teach. He was nominated for Teacher of the Year during the 2010-2011 academic year.
Qualifications: "I would submit to you that teaching middle school nowadays overqualifies me to be mayor ... You get up every day, you talk, and you persuade people to do something they don't necessarily want to do."
On Mayor Riley: "I believe he's done great for the city, but his best days are behind him," Jelks says. "He deserves retirement."
On Job Creation: Jelks would work to provide competitive grants to local entrepreneurs. "All a dream really needs is to catch a strong wind," he says.
On Crime: "What I'm supposed to say is more police officers, but no, that's a little trite," Jelks says. Existing officers could work more effectively with additional training, he says.
On Flooding: Jelks does not believe the State Infrastructure Bank will approve Riley's loan request for a Crosstown fix. "The funding isn't there, and if anyone tells you the funding is there, they are lying to you and they simply want to win an election," he says. If elected, Jelks says he would create another commission to analyze drainage problems around the Crosstown.
On Transportation: Jelks questions the feasibility of creating a bike lane on the Ashley River Bridge. "I love bikers, but our current mayor is trying to appease everyone by promising everything," he says.
On Cruise Ships: The city has a right to enforce regulations on cruise ships in its harbor, Jelks says. That means taking action to mitigate environmental damage and preserve the historic character of downtown neighborhoods.
On Term Limits: The mayor should be limited to three terms of four years, Jelks says.
Other Ideas: As mayor, Jelks would lead an annual education conference where teachers could propose new ideas. He also wants to increase firefighters' salaries. "I am running a bold and ambitious campaign," he says, "one fueled not by money, but by the belief that those in power are not entitled to it until they die."
Joshua R. Kennedy grew up in an Air Force family that moved all over the country, but he has lived in the Charleston area since 1997. After high school, a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis kept him from following in his father's footsteps as a fighter pilot, so he earned a living as a landscaper, plant nursery worker, and warehouse manager. Today he and his family own Fischer's Sports Pub & Grill at Bohicket Marina.
Qualifications: Kennedy says his lack of political experience is an asset. "It's like when I hire a bartender. I'm not going to hire somebody who's had 15 years of experience, because they know the ways to cheat the system and they'll steal from you every chance they get," he says. "I would rather take somebody who is honest and hard-working, even if they don't know how to make a perfect Manhattan."
On Mayor Riley: The other candidates have good ideas, Kennedy says, "but they're not me. They are taking donations, they're playing the politic games, they're out there doing what politicians do, and I don't want to see that. I want to see honest, hard-working people."
On Job Creation: Kennedy says the city should buy vacant land and foreclosed properties and lease them to business startups at a low price.
On Crime: "The more educated the people are, the less crime there's going to be, and they're going to take pride in what they do," Kennedy says.
On Flooding: Kennedy says the solution to the Crosstown woes is to raise the road and also install water pumps. Money being set aside for the Gaillard Auditorium renovations could be taken and used for the drainage improvements. "We don't need a monument to people," he says. "We need roads to get there."
On Transportation: Speaking about bicycle lanes, Kennedy says, "In my mind, it's not a huge issue. You're talking about people trying to get to work, and we've got to have the jobs before they can ride to work." As for finding a safe route for bicyclists across the Ashley River, he recommends that people put their bikes on the front of a CARTA bus and pay the fare to ride across the bridge.
On Cruise Ships: "I say the more the merrier. In this economy, we can't turn down any opportunity for jobs. That being said, there needs to be a limit. Otherwise there will be a traffic jam."
On Term Limits: Kennedy notes that Riley has been in office since the year he was born. He supports establishing a limit of two four-year terms. He also says voter turnout could be improved if mayoral elections were synced up with presidential elections.
Other Ideas: Kennedy would give property tax breaks to families whose children perform well in school.
Joseph P. Riley Jr. is a native Charlestonian and graduate of the Citadel. After studying law at the University of South Carolina, he served three terms in the state legislature starting in 1968. In 1975, he ran for and won the mayorship of Charleston, which he has held ever since.
Qualifications: Riley takes partial credit for lowering crime rates — particularly in the past three years, when violent crime dropped 53 percent — and making Charleston the first city in South Carolina to earn a sterling AAA credit rating. He also says he has helped restore historic buildings and made the city more attractive to young college graduates.
On Job Creation: Like Gregorie, Riley wants to keep pushing ahead with the Horizon District, a development plan for research, office, retail, and residential space in an area bounded by Lockwood Drive, Fishburne Street, Hagood Avenue, and Spring Street.
On Crime: "The most important thing our city does is provide safety," Riley says. He vows to make police funding a priority in all future budgets and to make sure officers are equipped with the right technology to get the job done.
On Flooding: (See above.)
On Transportation: Riley has his eyes set on infrastructure improvements on Market Street and along the High Battery. He has recently been a vocal proponent of bicycle lane proposals and thrown his weight behind a plan to shut down a lane of car traffic on the Ashley River Bridge for bike traffic, eventually connecting disparate bike-friendly segments to create a continuous Battery-to-Beach route.
On Cruise Ships: The lawsuit that has been filed against Carnival Cruise Lines is "an outrageous lawsuit, and it will be thrown out of court," Riley says. He compares the city's agreement with the State Ports Authority to its agreement with the College of Charleston that has kept the undergraduate enrollment size at about 10,000 for years — even without a means of enforcement.
On Term Limits: "There is a term limit for mayor, and the term limit is four years. No one can serve more than four years unless the voters want them to."
Other Ideas: Riley and Gregorie are the only two candidates to mention deepening the harbor as a priority. Riley has worked with State Ports Authority President Jim Newsome to get the deepening project onto the Army Corps of Engineers' 2011 work plan.