Boost mass transit to ease gridlock

Cleveland's Healthline bus rapid transit system. (Center for Neighborhood Technology/Provided)

A series of three Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments meetings starting Monday will gauge public opinion on how best to develop a transit alternative along Interstate 26 between Summerville and peninsular Charleston. It’s far and away the Lowcountry’s busiest route, and developing a serious transit system could be the only way to avoid a future of total gridlock.

But a congested I-26 is only one symptom of a larger problem.

Lowcountry transportation infrastructure has not kept up with population growth, even as the Charleston metro area has added more than 100,000 new residents over the past decade. Now it seems we could be forced to pay the price, the shocking sum of which is reflected in the South Carolina Department of Transportation’s 25-year funding needs report released last year.

Much of the stunning statewide shortfall of $1.5 billion a year focuses on critical highway needs such as repairs, construction and expansion. Bringing roads up to par is crucial, but shoring up the state’s transportation infrastructure long-term demands a broader approach.

Public transportation accounts for just 7 percent of projected DOT funding needs, and an even smaller fraction covers new mass transit in the state.

That’s an understandable, albeit wrongheaded, approach based too heavily on past trends and development patterns. For decades, South Carolinians — including those in the Charleston area — traded the city for the suburbs, streetcars for personal vehicles. The ultimate result was a traffic and funding nightmare.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Investing in public transportation far above and beyond traditional bus systems would directly create jobs — for drivers, station custodians, construction workers, engineers, manufacturers etc. More importantly, it would indirectly encourage growth in areas well served by a new transit network, and could catalyze recovery in neglected neighborhoods.

One recent University of California study found that, for every 10 percent expansion in a given city’s mass transit service, average yearly wages per worker increased by as much as $200 citywide. Gross metropolitan product also rose by as much as 2 percent.

Homes near public transportation routes maintained values two times higher than average during the most recent economic recession, according to a Reason Institute report.

So even though transit systems rarely pay for themselves — fare box returns are about 40 percent nationwide, and are 39 percent in the Charleston area — they can still generate substantial economic benefits.

Based on the most recent census reports, daily commutes in Charleston County average about 24 minutes. That’s very close to the national norm. However, the same trip on an existing bus route would almost certainly take much longer.

The COG plan for an I-26 alternative could go a long way toward making mass transit faster and more convenient in the area. But it shouldn’t be the only route under consideration.

That’s because more than half of daily commutes nationwide occur between two suburbs, according to Brookings Institute data. Any effective transit system will need both north-south and east-west routes at a bare minimum.

Commuter rail, which functions much like a traditional passenger train service, has been the subject of previous studies in the Charleston area. It could potentially connect Summerville and the peninsula using existing rail lines.

But with only one or two stops along the way, commuter rail would have limited benefit for a vast swath of the metro population.

Light rail and bus rapid transit both allow for multiple stops along a single route, accommodating trips between Summerville and Boeing, the upper peninsula and Ashley Phosphate Road.

Between the two options, bus rapid transit would be much cheaper; some studies show operating costs are half those of light rail. It would be easier to build and expand. With simple, free-standing stations, expedited fare collection systems and dedicated lanes, bus rapid transit approaches the efficiency of more costly systems. It could also compete with car travel times, particularly in peak traffic.

Even more importantly, bus rapid transit could operate on existing roads like Rivers Avenue, Paul Cantrell Boulevard, Coleman Boulevard and Highway 78 to create an extensive tri-county network.

And the benefits aren’t just theoretical. Starting in 2008, Cleveland built 7.1 miles of bus rapid transit service for $200 million. Bus trips there are more than 30 percent faster than before, and ridership has soared by 60 percent. By some estimates, development along the new line has spurred nearly $6 billion in economic growth.

And that should be the goal.

In order for mass transit to effectively serve the Charleston area, it will have to serve not just people who desperately need it, but everyone sick of sitting in traffic and yearning for an easier, lower-stress option. That’s a tough sell with a traditional bus system, but it need not be the case in the future.

As the Lowcountry continues to grow, public transit should be much more than an afterthought — or 7 percent of transportation funding. It must be a guiding priority.

Ed Buckley is a Post and Courier editorial staffer.