The Clyburn Center Mess: A Multimillion Dollar Catastrophe

The James E. Clyburn University Transportation Research and Conference Center at South Carolina State University is a $107 million dollar project. The complex was intended to serve as a transportation research center, a research facility for large trucks, the archive of James Clyburn’s papers, and a garage for Santee Wateree Regional Transportation Authority’s bus fleet. However, two reports, one by the Charleston Post and Courier and one by the Legislative Audit Council, reveal the incredible extent of the Clyburn Center’s failure. The project is sputtering along with no viable funding plan, delayed construction, and poor oversight.  The story of the Clyburn Center is a melancholy illustration of the fact that federal money isn’t “free” money: indeed, in many cases it costs the state millions of wasted tax dollars.

Consider the following:

  • The program, established by the federal government, was so disastrous and mismanaged that in 2006, South Carolina State University lost its designation as a federal transportation center, and the federal dollars that came along with that designation.
  • The University does not have a viable plan to raise the more than $80 million needed to complete the center.
  • In order to use the federal funds appropriated to the Center before it lost its designation, the state needs to provide $3 million for the project.

How did South Carolina taxpayers wind up on the hook for a failed federal project?

The Clyburn Center is the child of the federal government. In 1998, Washington bureaucrats passed the “Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century” (TEA-21), creating research centers throughout the United States to solve America’s transportation problems. According to the law, these centers would conduct peer-reviewed research on transportation and create multidisciplinary education programs.

At that point, state lawmakers could have accepted or rejected the federal dollars that came along with the transportation center. State law mandates “no agency may receive or spend federal funds” that are “not included in the appropriation act” (2-65-20[5]). In essence, the law gives the state legislature the authority to reject federal dollars and to reject the federal government’s plan for the transportation center.

Unfortunately, every year between 1998 and 2005, state lawmakers authorized South Carolina State University to receive and spend federal dollars for the Clyburn Center in the yearly appropriations bill. During these years, the federal government earmarked even more dollars for the project. Along with these new federal dollars came a matching requirement – meaning that by spending these dollars, South Carolina lawmakers obligate state dollars to the project.

In 2006, the federal government itself stripped the Clyburn Center of its status as a Tier 1 transportation center, including its eligibility to receive additional federal funding. South Carolina State University could still, however, use much of the money the federal government had already appropriated it, assuming the state legislature authorized this spending. Unfortunately but predictably, between 2006 and 2011 the General Assembly increased total yearly appropriations for the transportation center by an incredible 188 percent.

Where does the transportation center currently stand?

It appears South Carolina State University is dead-set on building the Clyburn Center even though it does not have a viable plan to raise the more than $80 million needed to complete the center. Its intended source of funds to bankroll the project is the $27 million earmarked by the federal government between 2002 and 2005. As of March 2011, South Carolina State University spent more than $8 million of those funds.  Per the stipulations of the grant, if the institution spends over $9,057,338, the state match is triggered, meaning South Carolina taxpayers will be on the hook for $3 million dollars.

If the Clyburn Center is a wasteful, poorly managed pet project, and accepting federal dollars will commit more scarce state resources to it, state lawmakers should consider putting an end to the project by divesting South Carolina State University of any authority to accept more federal dollars.

Who’s responsible for the mess?

Since 1998, state lawmakers made the conscious decision to accept this federal project and all attendant “strings.” Each year, lawmakers passed a budget bill authorizing the use of federal funds for the center. By accepting the Clyburn Center funds, our lawmakers commit $3 million state dollars to fund a federal priority.

But why? Why spend $3 million on federal priorities rather than South Carolinian priorities?

When state lawmakers say that they play no part in spending South Carolina dollars on wasteful federal programs, they are omitting the fact that the decision to take these federal dollars ultimately rests with them. One powerful member of the House, for example, claimed the Clyburn project was a “poster child for wasteful spending in Washington” – and yet he himself, just two weeks before, voted “Aye” on an appropriations bill that authorized $1.3 million in funds for the project.

Nor is this the only federally funded project that obliges state taxpayers to fund pork and waste. As with the Clyburn Center, so with Innovista, the Heritage Corridor, the South Carolina Maritime Foundation, the Georgetown Old Market, and countless other projects: What starts out as waste in Washington DC gets shifted to the states to fund. But in order for the federal government to shift the costs to states, state lawmakers must agree to the deal.

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