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Accelerate bus rapid transit

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Cleveland bus rapid transit (copy)

Cleveland's bus rapid transit system is serving as a model for a Charleston mass transit line that will connect Summerville and the peninsula. (Center for Neighborhood Technology/Wikimedia)

The Charleston area has pursued with varying degrees of urgency true mass transit to complement the existing CARTA bus system for decades. None has materialized.

Now, a planned bus rapid transit (BRT) system connecting Summerville to downtown Charleston stands to change that. But it could take another seven years or so, assuming everything goes exactly according to schedule.

By that time, the Charleston area can look forward to about 125,000 new residents and the ensuing traffic they will bring.

And the worst part is that such an absurdly long project timeline is the rule rather than the exception not just in Charleston but around the country, because the United States has lost its ability to build infrastructure cheaply and efficiently.

Labor wage laws, a misguided “Buy American” provision and exorbitant administrative costs all drive up the cost of infrastructure projects in the United States far beyond those in peer nations around the world. A mile of new subway in New York costs about 600 percent more than it does in Paris, for example.

And well-meaning but excessive permitting reviews add years to project schedules, further driving up costs in the process. A federally mandated environmental assessment for the planned bus rapid transit system is expected to tack another two years onto an already alarmingly long planning and construction timeline, for example.

It’s all incredibly inefficient, and the federal government is almost entirely to blame.

“The timeline itself is dictated at the federal level,” explained Doug Frate, director of intermodal and freight programs at the state Department of Transportation. “Across the country, there’s frustration. It’s the nature of project review and approval.”

As far as mass transit goes, the state DOT mainly acts as a funnel for state and federal funds — a relatively slim $60 million or so total per year — while providing technical and planning assistance and compliance oversight. Most of the real action happens at the federal and local levels.

And as Mr. Frate suggests, there is plenty of frustration here in Charleston.

“We’re looking at using existing infrastructure [for BRT]. Ten years? I can’t imagine why,” said Charleston County Councilman Dickie Schweers, who has a seat on the CARTA board and will help oversee funding of the planned BRT system at the county level through the half-cent sales tax voters approved in 2016.

“We can shorten [the review process] but we need federal cooperation,” explained Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings, who is also chairman of the CARTA board. “We’re completely at their mercy currently.”

The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, which is spearheading the BRT project, is apparently moving things along as quickly as possible. But a mess of federal bureaucracy is holding things up.

The state’s congressional delegation should take action. President Donald Trump has promised to make infrastructure a priority, and Congress is expected to work on legislation sometime next year. Any proposal should include sensible regulatory reforms and changes that streamline permitting processes for mass transit.

In the meantime, Charleston area officials and residents frustrated by a lack of mass transit and the slow pace of infrastructure improvements should keep pressure on federal lawmakers to fix a clearly broken system.

“Lowcountry rapid transit is going to happen, it’s just not happening fast enough,” said Mr. Seekings.

There is simply no reason it should take a decade to plan, permit and build a bus line from Summerville to Charleston.

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