The one hundred and forty-one persons flew on the wings of wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour, annihilating time and space...leaving all the world behind. On the return we reached Sans-Souci in quick and double quick time, stopped to take up a recruiting party-darted forth like a live rocket, scattering sparks and flames on either side-passed over three salt creeks hop, step and jump, and landed us all safe at the Lines before any of us had time to determine whether or not it was prudent to be scared.
—Charleston Courier, Dec. 29, 1830
On Christmas Day, 1830, the Best Friend of Charleston became the first train in the world to carry passengers and freight for hire. Nearly two centuries later, Charleston has no train service for local commuters, and our underutilized AMTRAK station sits in shambles.
Fortunately for the carless and traffic weary, there's a growing number of commuting alternatives. CARTA broke ground last week on the North Charleston Regional Intermodal Center, a 30-acre property at the intersection of Montague Avenue and Seiberling Road that will eventually serve as a hub for AMTRAK, Greyhound, local buses, and possibly light rail. The event coincides with Tri-County Link's (formerly the Rural Transportation Management Association) announcement that they'll begin bus service from Mt. Pleasant to McClellanville and Awendaw on Mon. Sept. 17. Also on that day CARTA will hold a public hearing to collect feedback on a potential Express route from Summerville. The meeting takes place at 6 p.m. at Dorchester County Council Chambers at 500 N. Main St. in Summerville.
"How do we justify CARTA?" asked Patterson Smith, chairman of the organization's board, at the Intermodal Center groundbreaking. "First off, we love our freedom. This country is built on freedom, and we understand what freedom is about. Freedom is about choice, and CARTA is about getting people to where they choose to be, be it school, the doctor's office, or most importantly, jobs. That freedom builds our community."
Recent increases in bus ridership indicate that people with the choice of driving are taking the bus instead, largely the result of CARTA's new Express service. Ridership this June and July hovered around 15,000 daily users, up from 9,300 in February. "Choice riders could be fighting for parking, but instead they've chosen the bus, and that helps mitigate traffic problems on our roads," says Smith. "It's a real win for our community."
Both North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and CARTA Director Howard Chapman spoke at the groundbreaking, joining a group of board members, local politicians, and a representative of the building contractor Banks Construction in shoveling a ceremonial first pile of dirt. Located adjacent to the convention center and close to the airport, the $1.9 million contract for the first phase of construction includes demolition of a few buildings on the site, building a storm water pond, and paving a park-and-ride lot. In the future, the facility may also include a hotel and office buildings, providing a revenue source for the historically underfunded CARTA. At this point, further funds have not been secured for the project, with an estimated total cost around $18 million, and no timetable exists for the beginning of a second phase of construction.
CARTA hopes that the center may eventually serve as a hub for commuter rail. "I don't think most people know that Norfolk Southern has a rail line that runs parallel to I-26 all the way from downtown Charleston up to Summerville and beyond," says Smith, adding that the line is the old right-of-way for the Best Friend. "That has significant historical value for our country."
A light rail feasibility study has been completed, and Mayor Joe Riley currently chairs CHATS (Charleston Area Transportation Study Committee), which will further examine the proposal. "We're doing our due diligence to look at what is obviously a good idea," says Smith. "I see it as being part of maintaining a quality of life in this community where people can go to work without being totally frustrated, spending a significant portion of their day sitting in traffic."
Dorchester County Councilmember Mike Murphree sits on the CHATS board and explains that the biggest problem they've encountered is how to coordinate sharing the rail lines with CSX and the other bulk hauling companies who use them. "We're working to negotiate a shared schedule with them," say Murphree. "If we can share the railway, we'll be a lot better off in terms of cost and feasibility numbers."
For people living on the outskirts of the Charleston area, a more concrete option already or will soon exist. Tri-County Link will begin a daily service connecting residents from as far north as McClellanville on Highway 17 with CARTA services in Mt. Pleasant. The two organizations have negotiated a transfer policy, so riders only have to pay once to get to their final destination.
Tri-County Link has operated a shuttle service from Edisto Island for about a decade and receives a small portion of the half-cent sales tax. By selling advertising and careful planning, the independent nonprofit has been able to operate in the black. "Once we have the new routes established, then we expect to begin a similar feeder route from Johns Island, hopefully around Thanksgiving," says Director Will Hutto. For the first two weeks of any new route, Tri-County Link is also offering free service to encourage new riders.
Although Charleston still lags behind other American cities of its size in public transport options, new bus services, the potential for light rail, and a new facility that will house several transport options offer a promising future outlook.
"Anyone who's been to the existing AMTRAK facility to pick up relatives or friends arriving by train knows it's an embarrassment," says CARTA's Smith. "A world-class community like Charleston doesn't need an embarrassment as our gateway."
If CARTA can secure funding for the new Intermodal Center, that won't soon be the case.
To get a copy of Tri-County Link's schedule, routes, and fares e-mailed or snail mailed to you, call them at 1-800-966-6631. CARTA's schedules are available online at www.ridecarta.com