Charleston is getting bus rapid transit — eventually. If all goes well, the first passengers could hop on board the region’s first true mass transit system sometime in 2025.
It’s a tribute to bureaucracy that a desperately needed infrastructure project takes so long to build, even when funding is already effectively in place thanks to the half-cent sales tax Charleston County voters approved in 2016.
But there is a silver lining. We have at least 7 years to make sure that our investment in bus rapid transit is as effective and high-impact as possible. And that’s important when $250 million in taxpayer funding — plus another $6 million or so per year to run the system — is at stake.
Bus rapid transit — with dedicated lanes, traffic signal priority and other features that make it more akin to light rail than a traditional bus system — will be far and away the largest investment in public transportation in Charleston’s recent history. That’s exciting, but it’s also a huge risk.
If the new system, which will connect Summerville and downtown Charleston, works well, it could and should inspire an expansion of mass transit across the region. But if it struggles, it could poison similar efforts for the foreseeable future.
If possible, we should test some of the system’s features on a smaller scale to see if they have an impact on bus ridership and the effectiveness of bus transportation.
Charleston is hardly the first city to try bus rapid transit. But it’s less populous and dense than most cities that rely on it. In other words, lessons from other places might not directly translate to the Lowcountry.
A dedicated lane, mostly along Rivers Avenue, is expected to help move passengers from Summerville to the peninsula with 18 stops along the way in about an hour. Why not put down some temporary paint or a few cones and find out?
It wouldn’t be a perfect experiment. The final bus rapid transit system isn’t expected to take over any lanes otherwise dedicated to cars, for example. But it might offer some insights that the project’s planners could take into account.
Or what about putting traffic signal priority technology in existing CARTA buses along the Rivers Avenue corridor? Riders along those routes, which are the most heavily utilized in the region, would probably appreciate quicker trips and, again, we could study the technology’s effectiveness in the real world.
Those or similar initiatives would require some extra funding and state Department of Transportation approval. But Charleston County has about $350 million to spend on transit over the next few decades and state officials should encourage smaller, temporary efforts to make sure that a far bigger investment is going to work as well as possible.
In the meantime, local officials need to get serious about revamping zoning along the bus rapid transit corridor. It’s easily the smartest place to funnel some of the region’s population growth. But that can’t really happen without updated rules.
The Charleston area has long suffered from a lack of serious investment in effective, innovative public transportation. Bus rapid transit offers an exciting opportunity to change that.
We have at least seven years to get ready. We should make the most of that time.