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Charleston mass transit stuck in bureaucratic traffic jam

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BRT in Bogota, Colombia

The world's largest bus rapid transit system serves more than 2 million riders per day in Bogota, Colombia. A smaller but similar version is planned for the Charleston area. (Pedro Felipe/Provided)

Assuming the rate of population growth stays at its current level, the Charleston region would be home to almost 150,000 more people by the time the area’s first true mass transit system opens to the public. And that’s the best case scenario.

According to the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, federal money will be needed in order to help pay for a bus rapid transit system (BRT) that will eventually connect Summerville to downtown Charleston.

But getting a federal grant means going through a grueling five year review process — just to find out if Charleston is going to get the money. In other words, it could take five years to find out that the region is stuck right where we started.

And even if the money does get approved, which is hardly guaranteed in a competitive grant process, the region will have waited five years to break ground. So it could easily be 2025 before the first bus actually runs down the road in an eventual BRT system, assuming construction goes smoothly.

That’s a slow path to rapid transit. Too slow.

COG is overseeing the BRT project because it would run through at least two of the three counties in the region — Charleston and Dorchester — and a handful of municipalities. A later expansion could bring it to Berkeley County as well.

It’s a regional project with clear regional benefits.

Charleston County, however, already has its share of the BRT money essentially accounted for. That’s thanks to the new half-cent sales tax for transportation that voters approved last November.

Revenue from that tax is expected to provide about $250 million for bus rapid transit specifically, and some $600 million for public transportation in general.

There’s no good reason why Charleston County can’t go ahead and start work on its portion of bus rapid transit in North Charleston and the Charleston peninsula while the rest of the region waits on federal grant money.

The half-cent sales tax could pay for the entire $360 million project if County officials opted to go that route.

And the recently-passed state gas tax hike will also raise more than $600 million in new annual revenue for transportation projects throughout South Carolina. COG ought to be fighting for a piece of that too.

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There’s even an effort to raise private money to help pay for BRT.

So there are a number of options that don’t involve waiting five years for federal bureaucrats to determine the fate of a desperately needed transportation alternative in the Charleston area. COG ought to be proactively exploring those options.

And the public ought to be pushing leaders at every level to make BRT a reality, because it would be a really, really important asset to the Charleston region.

Bus rapid transit works basically the same way as a subway system except that the subway cars are buses and the buses run on a road instead of a track.

But BRT buses aren’t stuck in traffic ambling from one stop to the next as in a traditional bus system. Rather they run in dedicated lanes along a fixed route outside of normal traffic.

Signal priority means stopping at fewer red lights. Paying for tickets before boarding means passengers can hop on and go in just a few seconds.

With buses coming along every 10 minutes at peak hours, there’s no need to check a bus schedule and time a trip. Just show up and ride.

All told, COG expects buses to take about 60 minutes to run along 18 stops between Summerville and downtown Charleston — about the same amount of time it would take to make that trip in a car during rush hour, and maybe even faster. That is a game changer for Charleston area transportation. And 2025 is too long to wait for a mass transit system that ought to have been in the works decades ago.

There are other funding options available. There might well be a way to build BRT in phases rather than all at once. Dorchester and Berkeley counties should be willing to chip in their own funding for a project that will undoubtedly benefit residents.

But whatever the solution, COG needs to get the ball rolling on BRT now rather than holding out for an uncertain federal grant at an uncertain time. Otherwise, we could all too easily end up at square one — 150,000 people later.

Ed Buckley is a Post and Courier editorial writer.

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