[image-1]A new proposal for a rapid-transit bus line from Summerville to the peninsula aims to lighten congestion for commuters on I-26.

After initiating a study to examine the ways in which mobility can be improved along the I-26 corridor, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, in partnership with CARTA, TriCounty Link, the S.C. Department of Transportation, and the Federal Transit Administration, has announced a recommended plan for alternate transit connecting Summerville and downtown. The group’s analysis found that a rapid-transit bus line along US 78 and US 52 would be the best solution to the area’s growing traffic problem.

The recommended route would run for approximately 23 miles, starting in Summerville with a series of park-and-ride locations and traveling through North Charleston to a transit hub on the peninsula at Meeting and Line streets. The new bus system would operate like a conventional rail line, and the route’s 18 stations would be spaced one-quarter to two miles apart with a focus on fast travel with limited stops. The plan involves the creation of semi-exclusive bus lanes along almost the entire route, which would generate an estimated 3,800 new daily trips and 1.9 million trips per year.
[image-2] The projected initial construction cost of the project is $360 million with an expected annual operating cost of $5.8 million. Those pushing for the new bus system will pursue federal funding from the Federal Transit Administration in the form of a capital investment grant, which will require a partial match of local funds.

“There are a lot of different ways you can fund the local match. We’ve been exploring some of those and vetting them when we talk to different segments of the public,” says Kathryn Basha, planning director with the Council of Governments. “At the last set of meetings, we asked the public what their preference would be. Do they want it to be tax dollars? Do they think it should be a special tax or a tax district? We also gave them the option to not put any money into a transit system, and I don’t think we had any respondents who chose that.”

A capital investment grant from the FTA could fund up to 80 percent of the project’s capital costs, but it is recommended that additional funding strategies be secured in order to compete with other regions for federal money.

Successful strategies in other cities such as Jacksonville, Fla., and Everett, Wash., were analyzed to identify possible funding sources for the Charleston area. The use of funds from a transportation sales tax is one such option that has been successful in other areas. Selling off naming rights for the system is also a recommended source of revenue that usually supports operating expenses. An estimated three- to five-year wait to break ground on the rapid bus transit system is expected once the Charleston area’s plan is finalized and accepted into the application process. Construction of the new route is projected to last two to four years.

“I think the region has started to consider that if we don’t do something now and start to pursue it, we are going to reach the point of saturation in terms of mobility on the highway,” says Basha. “Between that and the port expansion and the new businesses like Boeing and Volvo moving in, everybody kind of knows we are going to continue putting more cars on the road. While we can do lots of things with the highway system, we’ve got to have an alternative. If you think about it, this plan is like having a light rail system, but it’s on tires. So if you get into a situation where you’re further down into the peninsula and you find that you need to continue moving people, you can drive in regular traffic. It’s a little more versatile and affordable.”

According to Basha, the study examined the possibility of utilizing the area’s pre-existing tracks for a commuter rail system, but that plan was never much of an option.

“There really aren’t a lot of unused rail lines. Looking at commuter rail and talking with CSX and Norfolk Southern, they said, ‘We really don’t have any that we aren’t using. The ones that don’t look like we’re really using them, we think with the port expansion, we’ll probably begin using them,’” she says.

While the rapid bus line would do something to alleviate traffic congestion moving into the neck of the peninsula, Basha says the initial corridor could also lead to similar systems catering to commuters in Mt. Pleasant and West Ashley. The alternate transit plan has already earned the support of Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, which he voiced during his state of the city address.

“We are going to need a comprehensive regional transportation and public transit plan. And the good news is that that process is starting to come together,” he said. “By working with our citizens and regional partners, we’ve already seen real progress on several major fronts, from the re-think of Folly Road, to the widening of Clements Ferry, to the I-26 Alt study, which recently recommended a bus rapid transit system from Summerville to Charleston. This kind of close collaboration between and among citizens and jurisdictions is going to be key to solving our traffic problems in the years ahead — and we as a city are committed to doing our part to make it work.”