Despite rising demand, risks worsen for mass transit

(Wade Spees/File)

Many of the Charleston area’s most critical new transportation initiatives have little to do with road construction. But hotly debated projects like expanding bicycle infrastructure, reviving a streetcar system on the peninsula or adding a mass transit alternative along Interstate 26 between downtown Charleston and Summerville aren’t just repeats of past efforts that failed to materialize.

They are part of an encouraging broader trend.

Public transportation use is growing — and fast. CARTA provided more than 5 million bus rides for the first time ever in 2014. Nationally, public transportation ridership in 2014 was the highest in more than five decades, with well over 10 billion trips taken.

But the support needed to continue that positive trend faces uncertainty in Congress.

The 2012 federal bill authorizing billions of dollars in public transportation funding will expire at the end of May. If Congress doesn’t renew the bill or offer a new one, hundreds of communities around the country could see a substantial portion of transit budgets evaporate.

That would be a disaster for CARTA, which relies on federal grants for about $6 million of its $20 million annual budget. And CARTA leaders say the system will need about $40 million extra in the next few years to replace a rapidly aging bus fleet. (For the sake of comparison, that’s about two thirds the cost of a typical interchange on the interstate.)

In response, community leaders around the country — including in the Charleston area — are working to raise awareness of the importance of transit, gather public input on needed transit improvements and rally leaders in Washington to support continued funding.

Today, the League of Women Voters is scheduled to host a public forum starting 5:30 p.m. at North Charleston City Hall to discuss transportation challenges facing the Lowcountry — from stalled efforts in the past to upcoming opportunities for improved transit options.

Then CARTA will take over The Alley on Columbus Street from 4-6 p.m. Thursday to answer questions, listen to suggestions and chat about the future of public transportation in the Charleston area. (And the bowling will be free.)

Later in the month, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments will hold a series of public meetings to discuss the planned transit alternative along Interstate 26. The COG started investigating possible mass transit options last fall, and is expected to present a project proposal to federal officials in December.

But the I-26 alternative, along with day-to-day CARTA operations and myriad other public transportation networks nationwide, depend on sustained federal support. That means more than just a temporary fix to prevent construction halts for a year or two.

Charleston area mass transit riders, local commuters sick of sitting in traffic and anyone curious about leaving the car at home more often should take the opportunity to participate in the transportation meetings and events this month. The future of public transportation in the Lowcountry could depend on it.