Study: Little traffic impact from cruise terminal; critics disagree

An architect’s drawing of the $35 million cruise ship terminal the State Ports Authority wants to build at Union Pier.

A State Ports Authority study that shows little impact on traffic if a new cruise ship terminal is built at Union Pier is drawing criticism from some residents who say the numbers are flawed because they were collected in the wake of a natural disaster.

“It was done by a contractor for the port and it only studies one week in October,” Therese Smythe, a resident of Charleston’s Historic District, said during an Army Corps of Engineers public hearing this month. “As you may know, we had floods in October and traffic was significantly less because tourism was way down.”

The Charleston region experienced record rainfall the first week of October that flooded areas of the peninsula and caused millions of dollars in damage statewide.

The SPA’s study was conducted weeks after the flooding, on Oct. 21 and 22 — one day in which no cruise ship was docked at Union Pier and another day when the Carnival Fantasy was in town.

The flooding led to an estimated 6 percent drop in hotel occupancy levels in Charleston County during October, compared to the same period a year earlier. Attractions such as the South Carolina Aquarium, historic homes and Patriots Point saw, on average, 27 percent declines in attendance.

But there is evidence tourism had rebounded by the time the SPA’s study was conducted. For the week of Oct. 18-25, the number of room nights sold in Charleston County was up 4 percent compared to the same seven-day period in 2014.

Regardless, Smythe said she would prefer a new study by someone without a vested interest in the cruise ship terminal.

“I think it would be a good idea to have a traffic study that includes more than one week and includes more than one cruise ship because I think the results would be significantly different,” she said.

The SPA, which wants to build the new cruise ship terminal, hired Cary, N.C.-based transportation consultant Baseline Mobility Group Inc. to conduct the study. It measures traffic counts and delays at 11 intersections along East Bay and Market streets. The study assigns a letter grade for each intersection’s “level of service” that is based on the average length of delay for vehicles passing through.

The traffic counts were collected during the 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. rush hour.

“The objective was to analyze how this peak southbound flow would be impacted on a cruise day when cruise passengers are exiting the Union Pier terminal in the non-peak northbound direction during the same time period,” the report states.

Those actual numbers were then compared to projected traffic counts in 2019, when the SPA hopes a new terminal will be operating. The 2019 numbers are based on projected traffic growth of 1 percent per year. They also factor in a larger cruise ship — 3,500 passengers instead of the 2,700-passenger Fantasy — because that is the vessel size the SPA believes will be operating at that time.

The results? Only one intersection — East Bay and Chapel streets — saw a significant increase in traffic and decrease in level of service with the new terminal and larger ship.

That intersection already is the worst of those studied, scoring a D in present-day traffic counts and a failing grade in the 2019 projection. The study says signal timing improvements could help future traffic flows at the intersection.

The East Bay and Hassell streets intersection saw a slight decline in level of service — from an A to a B — in the 2019 projection, but only when the larger cruise ship was in town.

While most intersections show more traffic in the 2019 projection, it’s not enough to impact the level of service. Other than East Bay and Chapel, no intersection scores below a C even with the new cruise ship terminal and larger ship.

Wyatt Sassman, associate attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the numbers don’t add up.

“It’s common sense that adding even more cars and trucks into gridlocked downtown is not going to improve traffic,” he said. “This study shows that the SPA’s plan is going to make traffic worse and confirms that we need to consider solutions like offsite parking and enforceable limits on the size and frequency of ships.”

Mushtaq Rahman, an engineer with Baseline Mobility Group, stands by the study’s accuracy. He said the projections rely on government-provided data and take into account permitted residential and commercial projects that will affect traffic going forward.

The study was unveiled during a public hearing this month by the Army Corps, which is considering the SPA’s permit application for the new terminal. Only two of the roughly 30 people who spoke at the hearing support the terminal. The rest say they are worried about increasing traffic and pollution and impacts to historic neighborhoods.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550.