The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG) has been working on the Lowcountry Rapid Transit (LCRT) project — a first-in-the-state mass transit program that connects the southern peninsula to North Charleston with a single-corridor bus rapid transit system — for the better half of a decade now. Outside of perhaps the long extinct street car system that once ferried riders from downtown to as far away as the Isle of Palms, LCRT will represent the city’s largest transit-oriented project in many years.
While every small milestone brings the project one step closer to life, project leaders say there’s still, literally, a long road ahead. According to the projected timeline, the beginning of construction is still a couple of years away.
Principal designer Sharon Hollis, added two to three years of design planning probably remain as well. “There is a lot of design that needs to be done — utilities in the corridor that need to be coordinated, stations that need to be constructed.”
“In North Charleston, we are widening the lanes into the median to accommodate the dedicated bus lanes,” she said, explaining that the beginning of the construction phase is dependent on factors and processes outside of their control.
Project leaders needed to complete at least 30% of the design to meet the criteria for a competitive grant from the Federal Transit Administration and move into the engineering phase. That goal was recently met, Hollis said, during a February meeting with the City of Charleston’s Committee on Traffic and Transportation. That meeting also established a municipal agreement with the city which will allow the BCDCOG and the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to work on roads once the construction phase begins.
“It’s something that’s required by the DOT any time they do any kind of work in a municipality,” Hollis explained. “Basically, it says the city is in agreement with what work is going to be done. Typically, these are done further down in the process, but since this is such a significant project utilizing a lot of DOT resources, they wanted to go ahead and get it in place to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
“There’s still some fine points we need to finalize, but it’s just an agreement that we’re all going to make this project the best it can be,” said Robbie Somerville, assistant director of Charleston’s Traffic and Transportation Department. “We’re hoping that the project will provide transit to the city, reduce the amount of vehicles coming in from North Charleston to the city and provide just a better mode of transportation within Charleston, especially on the peninsula.”
And even though construction is still a long way away, Somerville added, it’s never too early to start planning for impacts and opportunities, particularly when it comes to pedestrian and cyclist access. And those concerns carry over even once the project is complete.
“We have to look at the entire corridor — Calhoun Street from Courtenay Drive down to Meeting Street at least, and even East Bay Street,” he said. “That’s in the middle of the College of Charleston, so we have to look at the peak times when pedestrians are crossing. King and Calhoun is one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the city.”
Local transportation nonprofit advocacy group Charleston Moves’ executive director Katie Zimmerman said from what she’s seen, her concerns for pedestrian and bike access may be a bit stronger than project managers.
“Safe, connected and unimpeded bicycle and pedestrian access, including for people using assistive devices, is critical,” Zimmerman said. “Not only for people who lack motor vehicle access, but also to help encourage more people to leave their cars at home while traversing the densely developed and populated peninsula. With the new Ashley River Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge coming, safe multi-modal access becomes even more critical.
“We are already familiar with the dangerous situations that occur when sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes and bike corrals are blocked,” she continued. “Especially in the numerous locations where pedestrians are directed to avoid the area by having to cross a street mid-block and land where no safe infrastructure exists, and no thought to how a person could navigate a wheelchair.”
But even the 30% design that has been completed is still conceptual and could evolve over time, Hollis said, leaving room for greater implementation alongside the new pedestrian and bicycle bridges across the Ashley River and ensuring strong access during construction phases of the project.
The project received an $800,000 grant focused on the planning phase in January. While it won’t be used to fund any of the construction, Hollis said that’s a strong sign that federal partners are interested in the project.
At the end of the engineering phase, the Federal Transit Administration will rate the project for a second time to weigh funding up to 60% of the project. The remaining 40% would come from local sales tax.
“It’s more than just for the transit rider,” Hollis said. “It’s an investment in that entire corridor. The folks that are benefitting are really everyone — walking, biking, riding or driving.”
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