Charleston's traffic troubles won't magically disappear, but a major mass transit project connecting downtown and Summerville is poised to shift thinking and relieve congestion over the next few years.
"This isn't something that will be transformed overnight," said communities and transportation program director for the Coastal Conservation League Jason Crowley. "But, this project opens doors that might otherwise have been unavailable and the ability to transform a community that might not have been a center for investment before."
Since 2014, regional planners at the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG) have looked at the ways they could address traffic bottlenecks along busy commuter corridors, hoping to move people along Interstate 26 and Rivers Avenue more quickly with Lowcountry Rapid Transit (LCRT). The first major phase of that effort is a bus rapid transit system along Rivers Avenue, a first-of-its-kind project for the region, slated to begin running in 2026.
Bus rapid transit combines the benefit of buses to be able to drive alongside other vehicles with the efficiency of a light rail system to travel along designated lanes separate from normal traffic, making periodic stops along the route. Stoplights are timed along the way to minimize slowdowns, giving the high-volume buses an edge over local traffic.
Lowcountry Rapid Transit expects to be able to keep a one-way trip under an hour along the 26-mile corridor connecting Summerville to the downtown hospital district. The system will be able to handle 6,784 passenger trips per day, or about 2 million trips per year.
"It's for the people in the middle who can't get in a car to go to the grocery store," Crowley said. "The people who live in North Charleston are the people who have the ability to make this the most successful. They are the ones that are relying heavily on the local bus line … This isn't meant to replace that — it's meant to expand on that transit."
The completion of this project will mark the first time the region has a large-scale, consolidated transportation project that addresses mobility, zoning and growth.
"It will be a major reconstruction of Rivers Avenue," said LCRT project manager Sharon Hollis. "Adding bicycle and pedestrian facilities that aren't there today … It gives folks access to economic opportunities that they otherwise wouldn't have. It provides an option that's just not there."
'The state's first real mass transit project'
While this program would primarily serve the Lowcountry, it could have a broader impact.
"I think that we could scale that up — this is significant for the entire state of South Carolina," Crowley said. "This is the state's first real mass transit project: Charleston County put a portion of the transportation sales tax funding toward the creation of LCRT and the BCDCOG has used this as the spine of a larger regional transit framework."
The project is an opportunity to look at transforming the region, Crowley said. "After years of our region's winding roads and new roads, and traffic continuing to be an issue, it's evident that we can't build our way out of transportation problems. We need to invest in equitable mobility."
That's the goal, according to LCRT officials.
Drawing a line from Summerville to the hospital district in downtown Charleston, the proposed transit route will connect suburban and rural communities to the region's urban hub, stimulating growth along the way.
"It hits the employment corridor. It hits the hospital, the colleges. It hits all those communities that have a transit need," Hollis said. "It helps the existing transit riders, and perhaps the future riders that don't have a viable option from Charleston to Summerville, to get to where they're going. It's for everyone."
Now, armed with the concerns and suggestions from nearly 500 members of the community, Lowcountry Rapid Transit is moving into its next phase.
Over the past year, Lowcountry Rapid Transit has hosted public meetings to gather feedback, ranging from items as small as bus design to major decisions like station locations.
"It helps us to understand what some of the concerns are," Hollis said. "Are there some areas where people are concerned with traffic, are there others with people who are concerned about access?"
While the coronavirus pandemic that swept through the Lowcountry in mid-March stopped in-person public meetings, the team shifted conversations online. An virtual public forum that ran through July 10 counted more than 5,000 people attending and interacting with the forum online. The latest presentation is still available at lowcountryrapidtransit.com
"We are consistently taking input," Hollis said. "When this ends, it doesn't mean that input ends. We respond to every comment or question we get. We review them, we talk about them and we respond to them."
There have been a lot of questions and concerns raised by the public regarding the proposed route of the LCRT corridor, leading the team to generate multiple options based on feedback from those who participated in public forums.
Finalizing the route's alignment as well as station location and design are the next steps before the project moves on to engineering and financing.
Roadblocks and speed bumps
As with any project of this scale, there have been some bumps along the way. Redesigning the way a community views and uses its roadways is a tall order according to CARTA Chairman Mike Seekings, who also serves on Charleston City Council.
"It's not just picking out a route," he said. "It's figuring out what communities it goes through and making sure that we protect those communities for both short-and-long-term success. Those are fairly substantial assignments, and we are working on them all simultaneously."
Other concerns include unintended growth pressure or the potential for gentrification of neighborhoods, Crowley said.
Not only that, but it can be difficult to find a place to start a project like this from scratch, Seekings said. But, the project's long lead time is comparable to others like it.
"I think people comment often that we seem to be taking forever, but as far as transit projects go, this one is moving fairly quickly," Hollis said.
With all the discussion and public input, one of the main things people want to see is how this system will actually take shape here in Charleston.
"What the community wants to see the most is what it will look like on the roadway," Hollis said. "So, our next step moving forward is starting to create those visualizations and help people understand how it will actually function in their community."
Once the public has a stronger vision of LCRT working in their neighborhoods, the team will be able to start more concrete designs and plans for the construction and implementation of their bus rapid transit corridor.
The success of LCRT hinges on ensuring it is not just a commuter line, but something functional and accessible for everyone along its route, Crowley said.