Act now on I-26 alternative

Traffic on I-26 westbound in 2011. (Tyrone Walker/File)

The need for a mass transit system connecting Summerville and downtown Charleston along the Interstate 26 corridor has never been greater.

The urgency of avoiding constant traffic gridlock along a corridor that already strains to accommodate more than 130,000 vehicles each day should give impetus to a solution.

Legislative attention is focused on road repairs and improvements - including I-26. But a new study by the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments focuses on an alternative solution.

The COG is tasked with determining what alternative transportation along the Lowcountry's busiest route might look like, how to fund it and exactly where it would go. Despite the enormous engineering and political challenges such a project presents, the most difficult obstacle may be public skepticism.

After all, it's not the first time transit alternatives along I-26 have been considered. Most recently, an extensive COG feasibility study completed in 2011 found that commuter rail between Summerville and Charleston could cost the region as much as $300 million. It was a high price tag for officials who have yet to recognize the necessity of better mass transit. And so the enthusiasm of local governments faded.

Similarly, other I-26 transit solutions have been proposed periodically over the last 20 years. None has managed to move beyond the theoretical stage.

The latest effort has to be different. Anyone who has faced rush hour from Summerville to Charleston knows the traffic situation certainly isn't getting better.

Over the next year, the COG will explore a variety of transit options and consult with the public, local leaders and engineers to arrive at a preferred alternative. Ideas include light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit. Then they will determine how to build and pay for it, with a newly streamlined Federal Transit Authority funding program hopefully picking up much of the tab.

That crucial step of laying out the financial path from idea to reality makes this COG effort more ambitious than previous plans. And federal support could make an expensive transportation expansion more attainable. It also could make local investment more palatable to elected officials - and taxpayers.

The Lowcountry must compete with dozens of other projects around the country for relatively scarce funding; about $2 billion is available each year for new transit projects. South Carolina's congressional delegation should start working on its behalf.

In the meantime, COG staff will analyze information gathered at the public meetings, including comments received from residents last fall.

The COG will then work with CARTA to conduct bus ridership counts and surveys in advance of another series of public input meetings later this winter. A locally preferred mode of transportation should be determined by December.

But even if the Federal Transit Administration approves the COG plan, a project could take up to 10 years to complete.

That extended timeline might be daunting to a community that already needs relief. But it underscores the importance of reaching consensus on transit solutions and then commiting to make them happen. For the commuters who already brave gridlock and the thousands of future residents who will one day live, work and play in the Lowcountry, a transit solution is essential.