When the $625 million Lowcountry Rapid Transit Line project is completed in 2028, the 21.5 mile rapid transit line will connect Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties with a separate bus transportation system running from the Summerville area to the downtown area.
Two local residents respond to developments in the conversation around the project that has carried on for years, asking whether underserved communities will benefit from the massive undertaking or whether it will simply speed up travel between commercial districts.
“This is going to be the longest single-line rapid transit system in the country,” said Mike Seekings, chairman of the Charleston Area Regional Transit Authority (CARTA). “It’s a big deal.”
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg spoke during a press conference Oct. 12 about the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) formal approval of the Lowcountry Rapid Transit project to advance to the next stages.
“There’s still a few more steps to get this over the finish line,” he said during the press conference in North Charleston. “There are always going to be challenges to resolve. We will be your partner to get this done.”
Initial design and operation details
About half of the proposed transit line will use new traffic patterns and infrastructure including a dedicated bus lane, while the rest will be carved from the landscape of existing area transportation, Seekings said.
“We’re going to be using a lot of already existing infrastructure along the route,” Seekings told City Paper. “But we’re also going to be building stations. We’re going to be building park-and-rides, and, in certain places, new roadways and transit ways. So you’ll see those activities starting two years, plus or minus, from now.”
The transit line will include about 20 stations with buses running 21 hours a day at 10-minute intervals during rush hour and roughly 15-minute intervals in the off-hours, Seekings said.
The project will be partially funded by Charleston County’s half-cent sales tax. Upon final USDOT approval, the project will also receive a federal grant of up to $375 million, Buttigieg said.
The comprehensive project is a collaboration between Charleston County, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, CARTA and the South Carolina Department of Transportation.
Completion of the Lowcountry Rapid Transit Line is estimated to take about six years.
“We’re spending a lot of time thinking about what’s going to happen in and around that corridor not just with transportation, but with what happens with life,” said Seekings, who also serves on Charleston City Council. “We’re doing transit-oriented development studies. We want to make sure we can create live-work-play nodes along the route where people can have access to transit, be close to where they live and be close to where they work.”
Transit-oriented development studies are particularly important for the Charleston area that struggles with affordable and attainable housing for workforce and residents, he said.
“We will be working very hard hand-in-hand with the jurisdictions [involved with] this project to make sure that we do everything we can to make their lives easier and vice versa,” he said. “North Charleston has already [started formulating] some zoning overlays along the corridor to allow for certain types of development that would be consistent with transit.”
Food accessibility and transit
Charleston area residents are waiting for more design details to be released, and, in the meantime, are asking questions about how this project will impact neighborhood populations that rely on public transportation.
Lindsey Barrow Jr., founder of local market and food pharmacy organization Lowcountry Street Grocery, has been in Charleston 20 years and is eager to see a more specific plan for what the Lowcountry Rapid Transit Line will look like as far as stations, routes and pedestrian and bicycle lanes.
“I like the idea of incorporating the bus system into mass transit,” Barrow told City Paper. “We just need more confirmation on exactly what it looks like, because it still seems like there’s a good bit of it up in the air.”
Barrows said he wondered if the line’s design would take into account underserved people who transit lines are intended to aid and assist or if it’s a project that will simply expedite travel for high-income and commercial areas.
“The street line that goes from West Edge [downtown] to the Exchange Park [in Ladson] only encapsulates 5% of the Charleston region’s main transit lines, so I’m wondering why there aren’t any cross sections.”
Barrow is focused on creating a more equitable food system in the Charleston area. Through his community supported social enterprise, he hopes to combat low food accessibility, something he said is directly linked to underserved communities’ access to transportation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food access map is a tool he often references.
“[The Rapid Transit Line] is an interesting way to potentially open the doors for additional food access in the Lowcountry area,” Barrow said, “but it doesn’t seem to me like anyone’s putting thought into that side of things — we’re totally missing large chunks of [metropolitan areas with] food inaccess [on] the USDA map.
“Overall, I think it’s great,” he said. “I just think it would behoove the policymakers to include more folks who are working on some of the [social problems] in the Charleston area, like food access and food insecurity, in some of these decisions.”
Looking at the big picture
When Summerville native Walter Rhett, 71, was growing up, there were dirt roads and people were still riding horses. His grandfather’s cornfield, where he planted corn for more than 50 years, is now one of the major developments in the Summerville area.
As an urban historian, Rhett looks at the transit line from a different perspective: What will this innovation do in conjunction with the massive development of the region and for the industries that are creating the most jobs for low income workers?
“How fast and modern it is doesn’t matter if it doesn’t have a direct input on reducing the inequality and the inequity between people of lower income and people of higher income, [which] depends on where the stops are,” Rhett told City Paper.
For Rhett, a chief concern is whether the Lowcountry Rapid Transit Line will be an open or closed system.
“If it’s an open system, it’ll tie into various other kinds of transportation lines — not necessarily Uber or taxis. What people have depended on for years in small Southern cities is what we call van drives: Somebody picks you up in the morning, takes you to work and takes you back home,” Rhett said.
“My concern, as an urban scholar and a native citizen, is who benefits from urban projects,” Rhett added, “because transportation is something that happens within communities.”
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