COLUMBIA, S.C. – Officials at South Carolina State University are adamant that they will find a way to complete the school’s 197,000-square-foot planned transportation center named for U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, even though an audit has raised serious doubts in the minds of state legislators.
Clyburn, an S.C. State graduate responsible for securing the federal designation and money that launched the project in 1998, says the expected $83 million needed to complete the complex’s six buildings and parking garage can be raised in private donations.
“The earmarking process is not the only way,” he told The Associated Press. As for the current anti-earmark climate in Washington, he added, “What’s true today may not be true tomorrow.”
The school had been counting on a continuing flow of congressional earmarks for the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center, said the Legislative Audit Council’s executive director Thomas Bardin. It released its report last week.
The report found that mismanagement, inexperience and a lack of oversight are largely to blame for years of delays on the project at the historically Black college. The center was announced 13 years ago as a showpiece for research and training in fields including mass transit, traffic engineering and bridge design.
Blunders included beginning work in 2006 on land the school didn’t own and failing to do a traffic study until 2009 – seven years after the school began receiving federal money for construction.
Between 2002 and 2005, Congress allocated $24 million to the Orangeburg school for the project’s first phase, though it’s spent only a third of that so far.
The center’s executive director, Charles Wright, said the first building is expected to be done this year. It will contain research space and the cooling plant for the entire complex.
Pulling down federal money for work on the second building, an archives center that will include Clyburn’s political documents, requires the school to come up with $3 million in matching funds.
College officials told auditors the money would come from siphoning off some of its state lottery funds over the next few years _ an idea criticized by legislators who say that money’s meant for student scholarships. Vice president Anthony Holloman told AP that avenue is one of several options. Still, he contends the state gives colleges discretion in using lottery money.
The rest of the project, which includes a conference center, administration building and “guest quarters,” is unfunded and expected to cost $80 million.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said the amount of money needed gives her pause.
“Perhaps the whole idea needs to be revisited in the current economic and political climate,” she said. “There will be no more earmarks.”
Rep. Chip Limehouse, who heads a House panel that writes the state’s budget on colleges, bluntly called the project dead, and characterized it as the “poster child for wasteful spending in Washington.”
“There’s no small wonder our country’s in the sad state of affairs it’s in,” said Limehouse, R-Charleston.
But Clyburn, who has long championed earmarks as investments in local communities and colleges, argues the center was always meant to be done in phases over 20 years, and that schools rarely have all the funding in place for long-term projects before work begins. He countered that no one’s complaining about earmarks he got for the state’s other public colleges.
SC State began receiving money for transportation research and training in 1998 under a federal law that designated the school one of 33 transportation centers nationwide, thanks to Clyburn. A 2006 federal law expanded the number of designated transportation centers to 60 nationwide.
Highway officials eventually rejected SC State’s application for renewal to that list. Officials declined to say why, but a 2009 letter from Clyburn to the school president gives an indication.
“The discussions I had with representatives of the FHA and the documents they shared with me, made it very clear that they were not pleased with the operations,” read the letter written when Clyburn was the House’s third highest-ranking member. It was included in the state audit report’s appendix.
Between 1998 and 2007, the school was awarded about $6 million in research and training grants. The school began offering a master’s degree in transportation in 2003. Since then, 44 students have graduated from the two-year program, including eight in May; 19 are in the program now, Wright said.
Research at the center has included ways to persuade drivers to buckle up, using hydrogen as fuel, the fastest way to transport hospital patients during mass evacuations, how to best get food to elderly homebound residents and how to manage truck traffic flow from the Charleston port, according to the school’s 2009 report on the center.
The U.S. Department of Transportation division that oversees the university transportation centers announced last week it will soon take applications to name a new slate of centers for the first time since 2006. Wright said S.C. State will apply again.
In his March 2009 letter, Clyburn said he would help the university regain its federal designation as a transportation center, but was reluctant to do so “until there is clear direction and leadership.” In his response, school President George Cooper said he didn’t realize the school had lost the designation.
Clyburn says Cooper and the school’s new board leader completely restored his faith in the school. He said all of the problems began before Cooper was hired in July 2008.
The state audit detailed questionable spending and improper billing to federal agencies that it found in a random review of expenses from 2007 to 2009. Those included billing two separate agencies for the same $200,000 in expenses.
Clyburn called the criticism of S.C. State manufactured. He specifically noted the example of an employee getting reimbursed for four nights of hotel stays when the person only stayed one night, calling such things commonplace in government.
“Please don’t come up and look at employees of the Congress. If you look at all the records of state agencies in South Carolina, I tell you you’ll find many more examples of people who stayed one night and claimed two or three,” he said. “I mean, what is that about?”