One hundred years ago, there was a train station in Summerville and regular passenger service to downtown Charleston, a travel option that some would like to revisit as an alternative to driving on Interstate 26.
Passenger rail between Charleston and Summerville has been the subject of several transportation studies since 1990, and it's being examined once again, along with other options, as part of a million-dollar study of I-26 alternatives.
"We're in a situation where 1,300 people a month are moving to the (tri-county area)," said Elliott Summey, a Charleston County councilman who is also chairman of the Charleston Area Transportation Study and of the bus system, CARTA. "It's bumper-to-bumper traffic from Jedburg and Summerville to North Charleston and Charleston every morning."
"Interstate 26 is as wide as it can be," he said. "We've got to get serious about mass transit."
By the end of next year, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments plans to finish an in-depth study for the Federal Transit Administration, with specific proposals for transportation alternatives that could ease traffic on the interstate. That study would hopefully lead to federal funding for a project that could get moving by 2017.
But what would that project be?
"It's our job to put all those options out there for the public," said BCD-COG Planning Director Kathryn Basha. "We'll be doing a lot more public meetings to get people engaged in it."
The odds appear to be against commuter rail, given the costs and other concerns, but Basha said it's too soon to rule anything out.
"Of course, the question everybody asks is, what about passenger rail, or light rail," she said. "I think it is a serious discussion."
The challenge is finding a transportation alternative that's affordable and convenient. A leading contender is what's known as bus rapid transit, which involves buses that use dedicated lanes free of other traffic.
Basha and Summey said Rivers Avenue could be wide enough to accommodate bus rapid transit, but there's no room to widen I-26 to add a special bus lane. CARTA operates an express bus service from Summerville now, but those buses get stuck in traffic like everyone else.
"My hope is a fixed guideway system - something that keeps moving if traffic is stopped, whether it's bus rapid transit or light rail," Summey said.
Light rail would mean building a new rail system for passengers only, as Charlotte has done. Commuter rail, in contrast, would mean putting passenger cars on existing freight lines, as Nashville has done.
Summey said he doesn't think commuter rail with limited stops would be convenient enough, particularly for people who work at places in North Charleston such as Boeing.
The last commuter rail study, completed in 2011, looked at rail service between Charleston and Summerville, and between Charleston and Moncks Corner. Creating those commuter rail services would cost more than $300 million, the study concluded.
A commuter line between Charleston and Summerville with two stops in North Charleston, operating during rush hour, could attract about 1,500 riders daily, the study estimated, removing more than 1,000 vehicles from I-26.
The BCD-COG has more details of the new alternatives study on a website, i26alt.org.
"A lot of times we study something, but that's all," Summey said. "This one, we've tasked these folks with bringing back alternatives, a plan, and a way to pay for it."
Reach David Slade at 937-5552.
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