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West Ashley Revitalization Commissioner pushed group to consider a transit technology he invested in


Morris Ellison recently suggested the planners involved with the West Ashley Revitalization efforts would consider a personal rapid transit system like skyTran, a company he recently invested in. skyTran/Provided

The national urban planning firm hired by the city of Charleston to create the West Ashley Master Plan has worked all year on concepts to improve the city's oldest suburb.

Many of the ideas Dover Kohl is pitching center on traffic and transportation fixes, such as extending sidewalks, connecting bike lanes and creating West Ashley shuttles that would run in their own lanes of traffic.

But when the West Ashley Revitalization Commission got an early look at those concepts at a July 12 meeting, one member of the citizen committee took it as an opportunity to sell his own big ideas about fixing the area's traffic problems. 

Commissioner Morris Ellison, an attorney at the firm Womble Carlyle, questioned whether Dover Kohl had used enough high-tech traffic data and criticized the planning effort because it didn't consider personal rapid transit as a possible solution to West Ashley's traffic problems.

He then recommended using two technology companies, without mentioning his personal connections to them: skyTran, a personal rapid transit company he's invested in, and Mobi, a startup analytics firm he learned about through his business dealings with Israel. 

Personal rapid transit is a public transport concept that uses small vehicles on an automated track to take individuals directly to their destinations. Developers of various systems have promised to ignite a mass transit revolution since as early as 1975, but the technology hasn't gained much traction in the United States. 

Ellison argued Dover Kohl's ideas for transportation only add more vehicles and bikes to West Ashley's main corridors, while skyTran, which uses a track suspended 20 feet above ground, could offer a way off the roads entirely.

Headquartered at the NASA Ames Research Center near Mountain View, Calif., skyTran is currently testing systems in Israel. It hasn't been implemented in any cities yet. 

"It is disturbing to me, looking at some of the presentations given tonight, that personal rapid transit was largely ignored," Ellison said during the commission meeting. "You’re going to have more congestion, we’re going to make the bottle-necking worse, if we don’t look at the analytics and we don’t look at the technology that is developing."

Next, Ellison motioned to move the entire transportation planning effort from Dover Kohl's scope of work to the Charleston County sales tax oversight committee, which plans the transportation projects funded by the half-cent sales tax passed in November.

Commissioner Jonathan Zucker and County Councilman Elliott Summey, who chairs that committee, both wrote letters in support of the move.

"In the spirit of good government, regionalism, and efficiency to the tax payers, I would support the County handling the traffic and transportation portion of your project," Summey wrote in the letter addressed to City Councilman Peter Shahid, chairman of the West Ashley Revitalization Commission.

Commissioner Harry Gregorie, owner of GDC Home Furnishings, seconded Ellison's motion. 

Shahid and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg raised concerns about the motion, saying it was invalid because Dover Kohl had already been hired by City Council to include transportation in the West Ashley Master Plan.

Ellison ultimately decided to table his motion, but it's unclear if he'll be able to bring it up again.

In an interview with The Post and Courier a few weeks later, Ellison confirmed he's an investor in skyTran. He declined to say how much he's invested, but he said his personal financial interest in the company isn't related to his suggestion that the system be considered for West Ashley.

Ellison said he hasn't invested in Mobi, a company whose software can analyze multiple aspects of an area's traffic patterns. He learned about the Israeli startup when he met its chief executive officer at a German-American Chamber of Commerce event. 

Shahid said Monday he didn't know Ellison had invested in skyTran until recently. 

"What he told me was he didn't think it was a conflict of interest," Shahid said.

The commission is an advisory citizens group, so its members don't have to file any public statements of economic interest. 

Shahid said the commission is still on track to review and recommend changes to the first draft of Dover Kohl's West Ashley Master Plan in the next month or so. Ellison's motion probably won't amount to much, he said.

"City Council has the final say in what they want to do with this report," Shahid said.

Summey said his letter was purely meant to offer the city support with its ongoing planning efforts in West Ashley. He said Ellison never mentioned skyTran or Mobi to him. 

Ellison is the leader of Womble Carlyle's Israel Practice, and helps international companies and startups that want to do business in South Carolina. Zucker, president of The InterTech Group Inc., is the primary sponsor of the South Carolina-Israel Collaboration Ellison set up to promote business between the state and Israel.

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Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

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