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Commuter Rail – but on a different track to the same destination
Lee Walton

For several decades, area politicos and business leaders have attempted to interest the commuting public in a 22-mile commuter rail alternative paralleling the much maligned and overused I-26 Corridor from Summerville to Charleston’s lower peninsula. A mid-2006 study commissioned by CARTA, a follow-up federal grant funded study sponsored by BCD COG, and a privately funded study supported by the mayors of Charleston and North Charleston have each focused on commuter rail service as the best viable, cost-effective alternative to rapidly increasing commuter vehicle traffic congestion plaguing I-26. The common consensus of these study efforts is that commuter rail service from Summerville to Peninsula Charleston will be expensive to initiate, slow to attract a profitable user base, heavily dependent upon large annual subsidies to offset initial operating deficits, and, lastly, at least a decade away.

Ever true to his megalomaniac persona, Mayor Riley, Chairman of COG’s Commuter Rail Subcommittee, wants the whole enchilada up-front, and he wants it now, regardless of who foots the $50 million plus bill. In his recent ninth swearing-in speech, Riley again accentuated his lust for big expensive toys (that typically become miss-managed black-holes for tax revenues) when he demanded support for his commuter rail vision - “We must do it now…That’s one of those things that we can’t just put off as something that will be way down the road in the future…” For once in his life, why can’t Riley just consider starting something out on a smaller scale? He might even end up getting what he wants in the long run anyway.

There are often occasions where initially thinking small and “out-of-the-box” offers viable options not considered worthwhile or practical when looking only at the Big Prize or End Game with pragmatic tunnel vision. In several recent Palter & Chatter articles on the subject of commuter rail service, reference has been made to secondary benefits “At other times, the trains could serve tourist, conventioneers, people headed downtown for theater or a great meal or young people enjoying a lark on metal instead of rubber wheels.” Isn’t this the same adventurous mind-set that attracted those first brave riders to jump on the “Best Friend of Charleston” and head-off into the unknown hinterlands of our state over a century and a half ago? Why can’t those secondary benefits briefly mentioned by the Palter & Chatter become the initial catalyst to create a commuter rail market based upon “free market” attractions and the synergy of a broad based private sector stakeholder group?

The distance from the intersection of Calhoun and Washington Streets to the intersection of East Montague and Virginia Avenues is less than a third of the 22-mile stretch from Summerville to the Lower Peninsula; the initial project cost for rail service between these two end-points would also likely be on the same order of reduced scale if initial routes utilized common commuter rolling stock and schedules that did not interfere with freight traffic. Existing DASH service on Calhoun at the Aquarium Wharf could easily provide access to tourist attractions, restaurants, museums, shopping districts, and other popular venues throughout the peninsula. Similar DASH service in the rapidly revitalizing East Montague Commercial District could offer easy connections to the Convention Center and Coliseum, Center Point shopping attractions and the Charleston International Airport. Intermediate stops could later be offered within the Noisette Development, the Old Navy Base and the Magnolia Development in the lower Neck area as these areas continued to revitalize.

A possible additional enticement for tourist, shoppers and others out for a day’s excursion in the two Charlestons could be a fixed-fee, all-day ticket that would entitle riders to unlimited use of the commuter rail service and connecting DASH trolleys. Supporting stakeholders from the retail, restaurant and tourism venue sectors could also offer other discounts and special benefits to ticket holders. Special trains could run for special events and festivals in both communities. Ticket prices could also include reduced parking garage fees at each end of this first-phase commuter service line.

Obviously, even the much less ambitious commuter rail start-up project described above would require very dedicated participation and financial support from a diverse stakeholder group with a large private sector component. Key players would have to include Norfolk-Southern and CSX railways, the governments of Charleston, North Charleston, Charleston County, CARTA, The State Ports Authority, the Chamber of Commerce, the VTB, the Old Navy Base tenants, both the Noisette and Magnolia redevelopment projects and, most importantly, strong retail, restaurant, tourism, and cultural sector support. Nonetheless, the primary objective would be to create the awareness and acceptance of an alternative mode of travel within the Greater Charleston Metropolitan Area, and this would become the essential basis of critical support for expanded rush-hour commuter rail service to Summerville and, possibly, elsewhere.

Sometimes you just have to walk before you can run; successful commuter rail service is likely to be one of those ventures where a small, well-planned start will assure a long-term win for the future of alternative public transportation in the Lowcountry.