Charleston leaders are wrapping up the design phase for the Lowcountry Rapid Transit (LCRT), a mass-transit project that looks to connect the peninsula and North Charleston with a bus rapid transit system along Rivers Avenue. Next: submitting the plans in hopes of qualifying for the grant funding needed to move forward.
Though the grant program the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG) has signed onto is contingent on federal support from the previous administration, President Joe Biden has expressed strong support for local transit, leaving project leaders hopeful for the future.
“We have a funding strategy here, but when you look to the future, like we already are … knowing there are significant federal resources that could be potentially available — it is greatly encouraging that there is the potential for significant funding for regional mass transit,” said BCDCOG regional strategist Daniel Brock. “But, we have to get this first piece right, get it in place and build from there.”
And, those on the outside looking in are seeing a lot of the same opportunities on the horizon.
“I think that it could have a very positive impact,” said Jason Crowley, communities and transportation senior program director for the Coastal Conservation League. “The fact that the BCDCOG is going to be submitting this grant proposal soon — this project really is the first of its kind in South Carolina, and it has the opportunity to benefit the types of communities that Biden administration says need to have more attention paid.”
For the past six months, BCDCOG officials have been focused on connecting with low-income communities, Black communities and transit-reliant residents.
“I’m out there every day talking to the community members, from local business owners to neighborhood presidents, making sure they’re updated with the LCRT project,” said Morgan Grimes, a BCDCOG communications and outreach specialist. “I’ve heard a lot of excitement; oftentimes, I hear things like, ‘We need this yesterday.’”
Grimes said people are looking forward to the new connections that will come from the project. Officials expect LCRT to provide one-hour trips along the 26-mile corridor from the Exchange Park fairgrounds to the downtown hospital district. The system is projected to be able to handle 6,784 passenger trips per day, or about 2 million trips per year.
But, the line won’t go as far as originally planned — initial connections into downtown Summerville are on hold for the time being.
“We currently have transit services that connect to Summerville and Lincolnville,” said LCRT project manager Sharon Hollis. “We will continue to upgrade that service to the same level that the BRT will provide, but we just weren’t there to qualify for the funding needed to expand the actual corridor.”
The line’s buses will serve as local service in the Summerville area, keeping the area connected to the system without having to expand the LCRT corridor, Hollis
said. “We can do that without hurting our chances for federal funding.”
Once the next round of funding is secured, advocates hope the project will continue expanding, especially with support from the Biden administration.
“The COG should build this out as a full system,” Crowley said. “It really shouldn’t just be the Rivers Avenue line — that should be the spine, but it should branch off further. Everything about this project matches the goals of the federal administration — trying to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles, enhance opportunities to take alternative forms of transportation and bring those opportunities to the communities that need it most.”
Current plans are just the first step, according to project managers. “We are here to set the foundation for this project, to be the cornerstone — the spine,” Brock said.
A new phase of community outreach is now underway, and with the pandemic fading and restrictions on gatherings easing, Grimes is hopeful that getting the community involved will become a more exciting and simple process.
“We are really excited to see the vaccine rolling out, and we are really looking forward to seeing some of our community outreach events coming back up,” she said. “We had to get really creative to get the community outreach going during the pandemic.”
But, sharing project designs and the potential impacts is only a portion of what outreach entails.
“I think over the next couple of months, the big list from the project team will be focused on community engagement, but also education both for the residents of the communities living along the corridor and the elected officials and decision-makers in Charleston that need to make sure their land-use policies are in line with the proposal,” Crowley said.
BCDCOG is currently conducting studies on how land use should be changing to accommodate the LCRT line, but it will be dependent on city and county leaders who actually regulate land use in the affected area.