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Get creative on beach traffic

  • Updated
Too crowded, too noisy Beach residents feel trapped as crowds swell

Folly Beach-bound traffic merges from two lanes into one lane about a mile before crossing onto the island in June 2012.

If there’s anything that can put a damper on a Charleston area beach trip, it’s sitting in traffic and then trying to find a parking spot.

And on the average summer weekend, the thousands of daytrippers who pack up the car and head to the beach are more than a traffic headache — they’re a public safety concern.

Two-lane roads lead on and off of Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island and Folly Beach at every possible access point. And even if those roads could be expanded at a reasonable cost, traffic would still back up as visitors struggled to park.

That leaves emergency vehicles struggling to get through the line of cars. Meanwhile, it can seriously diminish the quality of life for not just beach residents but for anyone who lives within miles of the shoreline.

The city of Myrtle Beach seems to think the answer is just charging people so much money that they skip the beach altogether. At least that would seem to be the logic behind a recent city plan to charge $100 per year for a beach parking placard that allows visitors to use certain on-street parking spaces.

But beaches in South Carolina are mainly public land — at least where the ocean meets the sand. Pricing people out of a trip to the seashore is not the answer. Instead, Lowcountry municipalities should focus on making the trip smoother and keeping a few more cars — but not necessarily more people — off the islands.

One simple solution would be to offer a park-and-ride shuttle that picks up daytrippers from a location close enough to the beach but far enough away to avoid the worst traffic.

A shuttle eliminates the struggle to find free parking near the beach and packs more people into a single vehicle. But the shuttle ride itself would have to be cheap enough — or free — to make it worth the extra wait and inconvenience.

Setting up a dedicated shuttle or bus lane could work along most of Folly Road as part of a regional Rethink Folly Road makeover. In fact, it’s an idea worth considering for more reasons than just beach traffic. But a dedicated lane would still have to end as the road narrows well before passengers can hop out and hit the waves.

Safer bike and pedestrian access to Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island and Folly Beach might also entice a few recreational visitors to leave their cars off-island. Indeed, better access is a necessity year-round for people who don’t have cars or don’t want to use them. But in summer heat, human-powered transportation isn’t quite a practical trade-off for families with kids or people with a lot of beach gear in tow.

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Another option that doesn’t seem to have been given much serious consideration in the past is a water taxi. A boat could potentially ferry beachgoers from downtown, Mount Pleasant or James Island to an area beach and completely skip traffic.

And a water taxi would frankly be a lot more fun than sitting in a car.

Visitors to downtown Charleston can already take a water taxi to Patriots Point, the South Carolina Aquarium, Waterfront Park and the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina.

And other cities, including Tampa, Fla., Long Beach, Calif., Fort Lauderdale and Seattle use water taxis specifically as a way to get people to different beaches or nearby islands popular with tourists.The network of public ferries in Sydney, Australia, handled more than 15 million passenger trips last year.

Of course, there are few — if any — boat landings near Charleston area beaches with sufficient parking and capacity to handle a large-scale initiative.

And local municipalities or, more likely, Charleston County would have to find someone to fund and operate the ferry.

The newly passed Charleston County half-cent sales tax initiative could possibly be a source of money to fund a solution. So could revenue from the gas tax hike passed by the Legislature this month, a portion of which is required to go toward boat landings and public transportation.

Whether it’s a shuttle, a beach bus, bike lanes or a water taxi, beach traffic is a real problem worth diving into.

The lack of a solution is only going to get more frustratingly apparent as beach season gets well underway.

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