Diana Wagner

Page's Okra Grill server Diana Wagner chats with customers in Mount Pleasant Tuesday, August 27, 2019. Wagner, who use to live in the town, now commutes from Summerville (as do several co-workers). She and her husband moved to Summerville to find an affordable home. Brad Nettles/Staff

Diana Wagner rises early at her home in Summerville to prepare for the nearly 30-mile commute to her 7 a.m. shift waiting tables in Mount Pleasant, a town she moved from because of expensive housing.

“I got married, and my husband and I wanted to buy a house," said Wagner, 38, who is head server at Page's Okra Grill. "We can’t afford a house in Mount Pleasant, so we moved to Summerville."

She said about a half-dozen coworkers also live in Summerville, and many others live in West Ashley or on James Island.

“Often, they will call because they are stuck on (Interstate) 26 or 526, and we’re down a server," said Courtney Page, owner of the restaurant. She said the lack of affordable housing in Mount Pleasant and long commutes have made it harder to recruit staff, prompting her to raise pay, add benefits, expand parking and even advertise out-of-state.

Diana Wagner (copy)

Page's Okra Grill server Diana Wagner helping customers in Mount Pleasant.  Brad Nettles/Staff

More than a decade ago, 60 percent of Mount Pleasant town employees who were surveyed said they lived outside the town largely due to housing costs. Home prices and rents have soared since then, not just in Mount Pleasant but in many parts of the Lowcountry.

As some affordable housing advocates have noted, one thing that contributes to traffic congestion in the Charleston area is the fact that so many people in the workforce can no longer afford to live near their jobs.

Approximately one-third of those who live and work in the Charleston metro area commute from one of the three counties to another. That's more than 100,000 people daily, according to census data, and most of them — more than 7 out of 10 — are commuting to Charleston County from homes in Berkeley and Dorchester counties.

Smaller numbers commute from well beyond the Charleston metro area. Several thousand residents of Colleton and Orangeburg counties drive to Charleston County daily. Hundreds also commute from Georgetown and Richland counties.

Most Charleston area commuters have homes and workplaces in the same county, but that doesn't mean they have a short drive. In a county such as Charleston, which stretches from McClellanville to Edisto Island, and from Isle of Palms to Ladson, a commute can be quite long even without crossing a county line.

As the area's population has ballooned, the increased traffic has prompted billions of dollars of road improvements, many of which are still in the planning stages. The number of people commuting within the tri-county area increased by more than 80,500 between 2000 and 2015, according to census estimates. It's now more than 325,000.

“Last week, it took me an hour-and-a-half to get to work because there was a wreck," said Wagner. "Some days, it's not so bad."

Wagner said she keeps commuting to Mount Pleasant because, after eight years at the same restaurant, the customers and staff are like family. Still, when Page's Okra Grill opens a new location in Summerville next year, Wagner hopes to work there.

The large gap between the locations of jobs and the places where housing is affordable has, by all accounts, put more traffic on the roads. Towns and cities needs teachers and police officers, retail clerks and restaurant servers regardless of whether they can afford to live there.

The Charleston peninsula, Daniel Island, Mount Pleasant and the barrier islands face similar problems — problems for businesses that need employees, for residents who need services, and for employees who face long and costly commutes.

“Most of the people who work at our Publix store don’t live on Daniel Island. They can’t afford it," said Charles Schuster, a 68-year-old Hanahan resident who works at the grocery store. 

At a legislative hearing in July, Rep. Lee Hewitt, R-Georgetown, cited the disconnect between jobs and affordable housing as he asked state housing officials to do more to assist coastal areas.

“We’ve got multiple residents who work at Boeing who have moved to Georgetown because it’s more affordable," he said.

But the disconnect between where people live and where they work isn't just about people who can't afford to live near their job. It's also about people who accept long commutes to live in upscale areas with well-regarded schools.

“You have people who choose to live on Daniel Island who work in Orangeburg or Moncks Corner," Schuster said.

Like many aspects of population growth and housing development, opinions widely differ about solutions involving housing affordability and traffic.

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I-26 Traffic

Traffic slows to a crawl for morning commuters on eastbound I-26 Wednesday, August 28, 2019, as they make their way to downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant from their homes in Dorchester and Berkeley Counties. Brad Nettles/Staff

The Charleston Regional Development Alliance in April launched its "Reboot the Commute" initiative, aimed at reducing traffic congestion by "encouraging alternative commuting strategies like telecommuting, staggered start times, ride sharing, and connecting employees to local transit resources..." 

"We promote carpooling, we promote vanpooling, we subsidize CARTA Express," said John Runyon, director of business services at Medical University of South Carolina, which participates in Reboot the Commute. "It doesn't seem to matter how many parking spaces you have — they all fill up."

Measures that take employees off the road, from carpooling to telecommuting, can ease the need for large employers to provide more parking. Runyon said building a multi-level garage costs about $25,000 for each parking space.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and real estate organizations have advocated building more housing, claiming that would help drive prices down and potentially ease traffic associated with long commutes. 

Some local governments, however, have focused on reducing residential development within their town or city limits, concluding that fewer residents would mean fewer cars on the road.

“Affordable housing is going to bring traffic," Mount Pleasant Councilman Joe Bustos said in July, opposing a referendum that would have asked voters to approve higher property taxes to preserve open space and create affordable housing.

In the Midlands, Lexington County has been considering an ordinance limiting future subdivisions to four homes per acre. However, many urban planners believe the best way to reduce sprawl, and traffic, is to allow high-density development in urban centers — a concept that's faced opposition in many parts of the Charleston area, particularly in suburban areas such as James Island, Mount Pleasant and Moncks Corner.

Josh Malone owns two Chick-fil-A franchises in Mount Pleasant, and said his employees commute from as far away as Georgetown.

"This is the largest problem business owners in our community are facing," he said. "How do we balance the wages and benefits of really great team members with what consumers are willing to pay for our food and service?"

Wagner has worked at Page's Okra Gill for eight years, and used to live near the restaurant. After two years of commuting from Summerville, she said, “It’s worth a pay cut to not have to do this all the time."

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com