Last November Charleston County voters passed a referendum to provide $2.1 billion over 25 years for roads and mass transportation. Of that total which will come from a one half cent sales tax increase, $600 million is designated to mass transportation. Proponents say the referendum proceeds will help fund a long range plan for mass transportation issues rarely addressed by the county.
Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) Board Chairman Michael Seekings said the funding will enable the authority to grow as the region grows. The authority provides some 15,000 daily rides to passengers throughout Charleston, North Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, Summerville, James Island, Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms. Seekings noted that in 1929 Charleston peninsula trolleys provided some 15 million rides on the peninsula alone.
“We can only build so many roads. Building roads doesn’t help,” Seekings said about our region, where dozens of new residents arrive daily, bringing more cars to already congested roads. Moving people and efficiently taking them from where they are to where they need to go is CARTA’s goal, he said. Today, the service operates at a basic level. That needs to improve, he said.
Charleston County Councilwoman Anna Johnson is acutely aware of the need for mass transportation in the outlying communities of the district she represents. Some 50,000 residents live on the approximately 42 square miles of her native James Island. And the populations of Johns Island where about half as many people live on its approximately 82 square miles and Wadmalaw Island where some 3,000 people live on the 10-mile long, six-mile wide island are rapidly growing.
Only three bus routes serve James Island and none serve either Johns Island or Wadmalaw Island. Anna Johnson credits the late Westchester neighborhood resident Thomas Johnson with advocating for bus routes on James Island. Still, two of James Island’s bus routes are dedicated express routes that carry workers to the College of Charleston the Medical University of South Carolina’s campuses. Only one 90-minute round trip route serves the general population. The need for better service is obvious, she said.
Charleston City Councilman James Lewis, who also sits on CARTA’s board, agrees. CARTA’s partnership with the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Counties Council of Governments is a necessary one if the transportation agency is to effectively address mass transportation in the region. In addition to the funding the governments must provide, the COG will have to design routes that serve the region, he said.
As the region’s population shifts and residents move farther away from urban centers, CARTA’S challenges will become tougher, Seekings said. It must focus on riders and their needs. Over the next 20 years CARTA has to get ahead of the population. With some 40,000 people working in the region’s tourism industry, accommodating their needs for late night and off-hour transportation to work and residential communities is only one of those challenges, Seekings said. One bright spot on the horizon is free service on the Charleston peninsula by 2018, he said.