When it was established in 1998, the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina was supposed to be a major hub for transportation, education, and research in the country. It was also a chance for Rep. Jim Clyburn—an alumnus of South Carolina State University, where the center is housed—to restore "a unique mission" to his alma mater, according to an op-ed he wrote in the Charleston Post & Courier in 2010.
Clyburn, who is the third most powerful Democrat in the House, secured the initial funding and a federal designation for the center created in his name.
But more than a decade later, the $107 million, 33-acre complex has turned into a boondoggle.
Despite the center's creation in 1998, construction did not begin until 2010. And since then, only one building has gone up. Four others remain unfinished. Some $24 million has been spent, and yet no transportation research is taking place.
The center also lost its funding eligibility because "federal officials were not pleased with SCSU's performance," according to a 2011 report by the South Carolina legislative audit council. That audit found various reasons for the construction delays—some of them bordering on the absurd, such as that the university did not verify that it owned the land it planned to build on. Questions were also raised about the use of funds for travel expenses.
But the congressman thinks the problem is political.
"The facility and the school have become victims of vicious manufactured attacks by political partisans," Clyburn said in a statement provided to Whispers, though he declined to share who those partisans might be.
For years, the center was plagued by an unsubstantiated rumor—and no one seems to be sure where it started—that $50 million had gone missing, a rumor the legislative audit council sought to put to rest in its report.
"But it still comes up in stories," John Rosenthall, the university's vice president of research and economic development, told Whispers with a sigh.
(Courtesy of South Carolina State University)
Today, the university needs $80 million to finish the center. At a meeting of the South Carolina State University transportation advisory board last week, members weren't sure it would ever be completed, according to Rosenthall. The single, 8,500-square-foot finished building in the complex is conducting some activities, including a sustainable energy project and student support, but the level of activity is nowhere near what was planned.
As the center sits mostly idle, Clyburn appears to be distancing himself from the mess.
"I don't know what the future of the center is," he told Whispers in the statement. "I will leave that up to the university and its alumni to determine."