A vacant store at Northwoods Mall became a bustling transit hub on Thurs. June 20. Over the course of a few hours, local officials did their best to absorb every bit of information they could from food court passersby in an effort to shape plans for the area's most significant investment in transit maybe ever.
The area around the North Charleston mall has one of the highest concentrations of transit use in the area, with 25 percent of CARTA traffic coming on Route 10 along Rivers Avenue. Over the next decade, the Lowcountry Rapid Transit (LCRT) project proposes to build more than 20 miles of fast, reliable, and affordable transit service from Summerville into downtown.
Discussions in repurposed mall storefronts and around tables of strangers at public meetings are already helping urban planners get an idea of what Charlestonians want and need when they plead for more robust public transit.
NOTE: Project planners, engineers, and others will be on hand for an additional public open house at 3:30-6:30 p.m. on Tues. June 25 at the International Longshoremen's Association Hall (1142 Morrison Dr.)
What is Lowcountry Rapid Transit?
Several studies in recent years have analyzed how the Charleston area can best use resources to address the need for efficient and cost-effective transportation in and out of downtown. A model using "bus rapid transit," which is similar to light rail using buses and without the rails, was eventually settled on as feasible along the I-26 corridor. Where possible, buses would ride in lanes separated from normal traffic and would get preference at intersections, enabling them to move quickly regardless of traffic. Once the buses reach areas where dedicated lanes aren't possible, they would merge with normal traffic. The new rapid transit line is estimated to cost around $360 million, part of which has already been committed by Charleston County taxpayers, with a large portion to be requested from the federal government.
Until now, many of the publicly proposed routes have shown LCRT lines traveling from downtown Summerville, along the Rivers Avenue corridor, terminating on Line Street. But armed with feedback from residents, alternative plans under consideration now include service well into downtown with the goal of shuttling commuters to the hospital district.
"We're analyzing, do we take the Crosstown? Is it even feasible to take the Crosstown?" says Sharon Hollis, LCRT's project manager for Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. "Or do we go through the peninsula?" Those downtown routes could take advantage of the planned Lowline pathway under I-26 or could use Meeting and Calhoun streets, she says.
If LCRT does come farther south downtown, then the key question for Hollis is, "How can we keep buses moving downtown without impacting congestion?"
Polling the public
Public meetings serve a dual purpose for officials on hand, getting people acquainted with wonky, complicated projects chock full of acronyms and decade-long timelines while also selling the virtues of transit in general. A video presented to attendees at Thursday's meeting rattled off statistics about safety along Rivers Avenue with specific mention of driver and pedestrian fatalities. Laying out risk factors help describe basic improvements that could be made possible with transit.
"It's not just a project that will benefit transit users," Hollis says. "It will benefit anyone that uses that corridor."
Safety and infrastructure improvements would not be limited to roadways with stations, Hollis says. Business and residential areas around potential station areas will also get extra attention.
"We'll look at pedestrian activity inside those station areas to make sure that you can connect within half a mile out," she says. Planners are already coordinating with existing and planned developments along proposed routes to incorporate plans for transit.
That Charleston feel
Crosswalks and fare cards aside, part of the challenge of conceptualizing a rapid transit project is somehow capturing a bit of local character along the way.
At a set of January public meetings, a word association exercise with attendees about their hometown surfaced three overall themes: Nature, culture, and lifestyle. Nebulous as they may be, the themes will give designers and engineers a direction as they tackle decisions over station configurations, colors, materials, and more.
"If you have a history of woodworking, you could incorporate that into a station. One of the things we've heard is that since we have a lot of ironworking in Charleston, we could incorporate ironwork and such." Conceding that a theme popular downtown may not be as applicable in communities like North Charleston and Summerville, Hollis says, "We have to think of something that's more regional or can be more adaptable by community, but still cohesive."
Marketing buzzwords and framing aside, sometimes it can come down to off-hand comments from residents who assert themselves into the process. In the Columbia area, Hollis noted, a child suggested the name for the rebranding of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority, which became known as The Comet.
LCRT buses aren't expected to start running for at least 5 years, but Hollis is hopeful the debate and construction of the new lines will trigger enthusiasm for further build-out.
"We do hope that if this corridor is successful, it will be a catalyst for future corridors," Hollis says. CARTA's Dorchester Road routes are some of the next-highest-utilized transit routes. Studies are also underway to evaluate the usability of heavily-traveled roads into Moncks Corner.
"If this one is successful and we do it right, then we demonstrate that it can be used to make transit more seamless," Hollis says.