Morning traffic into Columbia cover image

John A. Carlos II / Special to The Free Times

Call it The Crawl.

It happens most workday mornings in the Midlands, as commuters choke the interstates and major highways heading into Columbia. Bumper to bumper, slowly making their way into the city, like ants in a line.

The ritual repeats itself after 5 p.m., with many workers fleeing the city — slowly — as they head to suburban enclaves in Lexington County or northeast Richland.

It’s odd, really, to glance at the facial expressions of other drivers who are making that daily crawl, sitting idly, and often alone, in their vehicles. Their expressions are a distinct mix of annoyance, boredom, thinly suppressed anger and a resigned acceptance. An acceptance that this is the way things are in an area that has grown steadily in the last decade, and has seen traffic rise with that growth.

The numbers tell the tale. The combined population of Richland and Lexington counties has swelled by nearly 100,000 people in the last decade, going from a collective 617,000 residents in 2008 to more than 709,000 in 2018, according to census statistics.

Snapshots of traffic trouble spots point toward that growth. For instance, according to state traffic count data, more than 144,000 cars a day travel along Interstate 26 just north of where it meets Interstate 20, and just south of St. Andrews Road. That’s up from 130,000 cars per day along the same stretch of road back in 2011.

That vehicular maelstrom where I-26 and I-20 meet just north of Columbia — colloquially referred to as Malfunction Junction — is set to get an overhaul in coming years, as the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are in the planning stages of an extensive improvement project dubbed Carolina Crossroads.

And the car crunch isn’t only happening on the major interstates. On U.S. 378 in Lexington County, just northwest of I-20, more than 33,000 cars stream through per day. In the heart of Columbia, on Gervais Street near Senate Street, more than 30,000 cars pass through per day, up from 26,000 per day in 2011.

With the region showing no signs of slowing population growth, it doesn’t take long to begin to wonder what traffic in the Columbia area will look like a decade from now, and how local roads and bridges will accommodate the demand.

Morning traffic into Columbia

Traffic heading into the city of Columbia, left, crawls along on a recent morning. More than 144,000 cars per day travel the interstate near Malfunction Junction. Photo by John Carlos

As officials look for answers, there is a potential remedy in the room, one that has been teased and studied and puzzled over for ages: public transit.

While Columbia does have an active transit system — The COMET, a $25 million per year operation with a fleet of more than 80 buses that mostly ferries residents to and from locations in Richland County (though there has been a bit more service over to Lexington of late) — it has not traditionally been embraced by the wider region as a true answer to commuter gridlock.

Is there a future where Midlands residents would relinquish driving their cars or SUVs in favor of using public transit more often, alleviating some of that traffic, and potentially helping reduce carbon emissions that harm the environment?

It depends on which local leader you ask.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is bullish on public transit. He thinks people are beginning to show greater interest in multiple means of transportation, but acknowledges there is still work to do to lure drivers out of their pickup trucks and into mass transit.

“I believe that we must become a more multimodal society,” Benjamin says. “We certainly see our citizens demand more. They want to be able to not just drive everywhere. They want to ride bicycles, they want to be able to ride scooters, they want to be able to walk on a connected pedestrian sidewalks and greenways. But having a mass transit system that works to serve the needs of a regional economy is essential to be competitive in the 21st century.

“We are very much an F-150 community. We like driving our trucks and we like to drive them short distances. We have to begin to change our mindset and see mass transit as a possibility, even if it is something as simple as park and ride, where you could park in the parking lot of, say, a local church and hop a bus straight to downtown and take that bus back home.”

Others don’t see mass transit gaining widespread acceptance anytime soon.

Free Times asked Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall whether he could foresee large numbers of citizens in that growing county using expanded transit as a remedy to the daily traffic grind.

“My honest opinion is ‘no,’” MacDougall says. “There are some people that would take advantage of it. But I think most of the people in this area would prefer to drive cars. Now, that’s not saying five or 10 years from now, when the younger generation moves up and moves us older guys out of the way, that they don’t fall into that and embrace that. I certainly think that could be an option. But I don’t think that’s the fix for what we have going on right now.”

The COMET on and off

COMET bus.

‘Even if They Have a Hooptie’

If public transit is to become a medicine that can help cure the Midlands’ traffic ills, residents will need a robust system they can believe in.

John Andoh is working on it.

The 39-year-old Andoh landed in Columbia a year ago as the new executive director of the COMET, taking the role previously held by Bob Schneider. Andoh, an African-American man who is at once soft-spoken and endlessly energetic, arrived in the Capital City after working at least 14 previous transit jobs during the prior two decades, including gigs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Hawaii, Mississippi and elsewhere.

The bus boss has kept his foot on the gas during his initial year at The COMET.

He’s reinstated bus routes to and from Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Routes have been established to connect Columbia workers to industrial jobs in Lexington County at places like Amazon and Nephron Pharmaceuticals. Routes have been adjusted and a marketing plan is being launched for the Soda Cap Connector in hopes of goosing the lagging ridership of the free downtown connector bus. COMET entered into a first-in-the-nation deal with Uber and Lyft to offer discounted rideshares to grocery stores, an effort specifically designed to help areas of town with food insecurities. Partnerships have been fostered to connect riders with Harbison Theatre, Riverbanks Zoo, Columbia Fireflies ballgames and Congaree National Park. And there’s a recently launched vanpool program through which the bus system will subsidize passenger van rentals for groups of commuters willing to band together.

Also, Andoh has been frank about the need to diversify the COMET’s ridership. In a January Free Times story, a COMET official said about 95 percent of the system’s riders are black — even though about 52 percent of Columbia’s population is white, while 41 percent is black.

During a recent conversation with Free Times, Andoh says he continues to look forward, seeking ways to enhance the COMET. For instance, he floated the idea of a “philosophical change” to the way the system delivers transit, including increasing crosstown routes and reducing the number of routes that run through the old downtown transit station at Sumter and Laurel Streets.

“Having that forced transfer at Sumter and Laurel does not help,” Andoh says. “Based on just eye observation, a lot of the [riders] at Laurel and Sumter are just traveling through. They are not destined for there. Which tells me we need more crosstown service. That stop at Laurel and Sumter can add up to 16 minutes of additional travel time, depending on [the rider’s ultimate destination].”

For his part, Benjamin says he thinks the Sumter and Laurel station “has lived beyond its useful life in its current capacity” and that he could envision “the eventual decommissioning of that site.” Benjamin, COMET officials and others have long talked about the possibility of an “intermodal” transit center in Columbia — a hub for rail, bus, taxis and other forms of transportation. The mayor says talks about an intermodal facility continue behind the scenes, and that a location for such a site has not been finalized.

The COMET and the Central Midlands Council of Governments are hiring a consultant to create a comprehensive operational analysis and a 10-year-plan for the bus system. That process will likely begin in early summer and take just more than a year.

Though The COMET has increasingly edged into Lexington County and is set to reinstate an express route out to Newberry County at the end of May, it still gets, by far, most of its action — and funding — from Richland County. (Of the agency’s $25 million annual budget, Andoh notes $18 million a year comes from the Richland Transportation Penny, which was authorized in a 2012 voter referendum.)

Andoh says that, if public transit is to become a true regional force, local governments will need to keep transit in mind when making policy.

“Transit has to be a part of each of the cities’ and counties’ comprehensive plans,” Andoh offers. “We have to talk about … what each of these cities, towns and counties expect from a public transit system. If they start adopting transit-friendly policies, to allow for the growth of a robust transit system, that’s where we can start getting there in terms of having a transit system that can attract people more to utilize it.”

He cites some examples of how governments could promote transit use.

“Transit-dedicated lanes on major corridors, like Broad River, Garners Ferry and Two Notch,” Andoh says. “Incentivizing new companies that come to opt toward subsidizing alternative transportation, such as providing free bus passes to employees. Incentivizing less parking. These are the kinds of things we’re talking about.”

Still, the siren song of hopping in the car and jamming onto the roadways continues to call.

Longtime Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine says she sees it.

“I think, first of all, we have to get a transit system that people can rely on and that they feel like is something they want to get on,” the councilwoman tells Free Times. “Right now, it is easier for people to jump in a car, even if they have a hooptie. They feel like it is easier to get in a car and ride somewhere.”

Changing the Mindset

In the coming years one factor in particular could lead residents to give transit a try: the Carolina Crossroads project to improve Malfunction Junction and its associated interstates.

During the massive, $1.5 billion project, drivers could seek ways to avoid that corridor.

“I do believe there might be some real opportunities ahead of us as the Carolina Crossroads project begins,” Benjamin tells Free Times. “I think some folks will be exasperated as they deal with the highway construction and will look for opportunities to get out of their cars. I think the COMET needs to be creative enough to be able to take advantage of that challenge and see if we can convert some folks into being potential mass transit users.”

Andoh says COMET officials have their eyes trained on the Crossroads project, which could start construction in 2020.

“Carolina Crossroads will be a perfect example [of an opportunity for transit to find a foothold],” Andoh says. “As congestion starts to occur with that construction project, the state is proposing potentially two park and ride lots, one on I-20 and one on I-26, as well as some operational subsidies for some type of express route. That could also help us in testing out some type of commuter network in [Lexington] County.”

Of course, there is the matter of money. While it receives money from bus fares, the federal government, the City of Columbia, Lexington County and elsewhere, a huge hunk of The COMET’s cash comes from the aforementioned Richland Transportation Penny. However, there is an eventual end of the line to that money. The penny funding will stop when the bus system has received $301 million or when the tax sunsets in 2035.

Andoh says long-range funding does concern him.

“A lot of people would like to see a robust transit system, something equivalent to Charlotte,” he says. “But we only have funding that can get us to 2035, or $300,991,000 dollars. Short-range transit plans will help us in getting there. But we need to have a more sustainable [funding] future before we can invest heavily in transit. If we’re not successful, in a future ballot measure, to expand funding, then we just don’t have the capacity to build anything robust.”

Benjamin, the third-term mayor who often repeats the line that he wants Columbia to be “the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial city in America,” also is keeping an eye on when the COMET’s cash pipeline will run out. He says plans for future funding have to gain momentum now.

He says continuing to build ridership — the COMET reportedly had a total ridership of 2.8 million in 2018, a 13-year high — could unlock some additional federal dollars.

“We have to commit ourselves to funding the system long-term. I’m open to new ideas to make that happen,” the mayor says. “If we increase ridership, then we can significantly enhance the federal money we can bring back to South Carolina. I think that has to be the focus. How do we make the system interesting enough and accessible enough and attractive enough for customers to ride? If we do that, then we’ll be able to get a sustainable financial model that makes it work.”

But new colorful buses, enhanced routes, free downtown circulators, community partnerships, rideshare subsidies, an increased presence in Lexington County and so on can only go so far. The other side of the coin is that people have to be willing to give it a chance. To let go of their insistence of commuting alone in their cars, and take a look at what transit has to offer.

It was interesting that MacDougall, the Lexington mayor, offered that “when the younger generation moves up and moves us older guys out of the way,” transit might get a better look from those in Lexington and other suburban areas.

Devine, the at-large Columbia City Councilwoman, also thinks younger people might eventually be the key to unlocking a wider public transit appetite.

“The way you change the mindset is, first of all, you educate people on why it’s a positive alternative for them,” Devine notes. “In addition, you have to educate people about what multiple cars do to our environment. We have a younger generation that seems to care more about global warming and the environment. I think you are going to get to a point where the mindset changes.

“Those younger folks become adults, and they make decisions.”

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