If current population growth trends hold, the Charleston metro area will be home to about 83,000 more people by the time the first passengers hop on board a planned bus rapid transit system connecting Summerville and the peninsula.
That’s like adding a new city the size of Mount Pleasant to the region.
Already, the Charleston area struggles to accommodate about 775,000 residents with a transportation system that is almost entirely car dependent. An effective mass transit system has been a need for years, if not decades.
And the situation is likely to get even more dire before bus rapid transit — dubbed Lowcountry Rapid Transit — arrives in 2025, which is assuming that every step in the permitting, funding and construction of that project goes as planned, which is hardly a guarantee.
To an extent, this is a failure of past local leadership.
Charleston area officials only started getting serious about bus rapid transit in 2014, when the limitations of the region’s existing transportation infrastructure were already more than apparent. Previous efforts to build some version of a true mass transit system never made it past the brainstorming phase.
But the ludicrous timeline for building bus rapid transit in Charleston — 11 years from start to finish if everything goes smoothly — is mostly a federal problem.
The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, which is overseeing the bus rapid transit project, lists 22 separate steps in the federally mandated process for studying, designing, permitting and building the system.
Nearly all of those steps are vague — “request entry into project development” or “agency coordination,” for example — and a few require multiple years to complete.
The actual construction phase for bus rapid transit is expected to take only two years, meaning that more than 80 percent of the project timeline is eaten up by bureaucratic red tape. And this is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to building significant new infrastructure.
Obviously, planning and study are important when spending large amounts of taxpayer money — bus rapid transit is expected to cost $360 million — and disrupting existing infrastructure, neighborhoods, businesses and the environment. But years and years of planning and study for a single project — particularly one so urgently needed — seems excessive.
It’s also perverse that the federal government is requiring the Charleston region to spend so much time and effort studying and planning for bus rapid transit before asking us to compete with dozens of other cities for limited grant money that may or may not even be available, depending on the whims of Congress.
This is a deeply broken way to build vital infrastructure. And it is exacerbating transportation challenges and related problems all across the country.
Even under the most optimistic scenario, the Charleston region will have grown and changed so much by the time bus rapid transit finally gets built that the new system may already be insufficient to meet our transportation needs. And any expansions or companion projects would be another decade or so away.
We must demand a more agile and flexible process for addressing our transit needs, not just in the Charleston area but nationwide. Otherwise, important projects like Lowcountry Rapid Transit will keep languishing in bureaucratic purgatory while we sit in ever-worsening traffic.