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Commuter Rail – no quick solution to 10 pounds in a 5-pound sack
Lee Walton

Sunday’s Palter and Chatter lead story, “CLOGGED and getting worse”, made a good argument for considering commuter rail and other public transit options as worthy alternatives to spending $300 million for the widening of I-26 to alleviate rush-hour gridlock down the spine of the upper and lower Charleston Peninsula. Unfortunately, like all complex problems and their equally complex solutions, there are other underlying variables and a few five hundred pound gorillas in the equation that must also be considered if the Lowcountry is to remain economically competitive and viable in the next century. The increasing cost of energy and its impact upon the region’s equation of commerce, coupled with the unintended consequences of previous regional land planning strategies, will dominate the actions of local policy makers for decades as they attempt to out-guess several other rapidly changing national and international market forces.

The unique geography of the greater Charleston area, dominated by a relatively small, historic urban peninsula, has limited commerce and transportation access alternatives from colonial times. Tidal rivers and impenetrable marshes, once prized natural barriers affording isolation from hostile natives and protection from land assault by enemy forces, now concentrate transportation access into three arterial north-south roadways on the peninsula or six bridge “choke-points” crossing the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. The intended concentration of the region’s largest of employment centers south of Ashley Phosphate Road, coupled with aging, under-maintained transportation infrastructure and decades of suburban sprawl have created a region ill-equipped to assimilate the projected 300,000 new residents that will call the Lowcountry home within the next two decades. Land throughout the entire length of the peninsula is rapidly becoming more attractive for high-tech commerce or high-end urban residential redevelopment and less affordable for middle and lower income family neighborhoods.

The end of plentiful, cheap energy that fueled economic expansion and real-estate development throughout the Lowcountry for the past six decades has recently brought this region and most of the nation beyond a “tipping point”. $4.00 per gallon gasoline and $140 plus per barrel crude oil will now be the dominant factors influencing commerce, land development, and transportation choices throughout the Lowcountry. The distance between where we live and where we work will become a critical factor in family budgets for most Lowcountry commuters. Mercifully, the increasing cost of gasoline will effectively end the proliferation of suburban sprawl into the more environmentally fragile and increasingly remote areas of the Lowcountry.

The equation of commerce dictates that each family must balance the cost of housing against the cost of commuting to and from work. Like SUV’s, new, lower cost homes in remote forth and fifth-ring subdivisions will become less affordable to most families as energy costs continue to escalate. Driven by the cost of transportation, the balance of the family budget will tip in favor of smaller, albeit less affordable, residences closer to desirable employment centers, concentrated services and shopping. Existing residential land values closer to major centers of employment within the upper and lower Charleston peninsula will increase as demand increases for shorter, more economical commuting options. Older, smaller homes in first and second-ring subdivisions with public transit service will become neighborhoods of choice; a serendipitous benefit will be increasing demands for a return to neighborhood public schools to further reduce transportation costs.

So what are our options? Commuter rail from Summerville to the MUSC Complex may be the answer for a relative few, but in practical terms, the annual growth rate in nation-wide public transit ridership has yet to equal the annual increase in commuting traffic. Even if all the projected annual increase of between 2 and 3 percent in the commuting workforce were captured by public transit, there would still be the projected increases in commercial and non-work related traffic to assimilate. The projected increase in port related container truck traffic from the proposed North Charleston terminal at the former Navy Base is another critical issue yet to be resolved. Commuter rail, HOV lanes, Bus Rapid Transit, park and ride, bicycles and other two-wheeled options will all become more economically viable choices as energy costs continue to escalate, but these alternatives are only part of the solution to the greater transportation enigma the Lowcountry now faces.

The historic concentration of the regions largest employment sectors within the Lower Peninsula is the dominant factor now exacerbating rush-hour commuter traffic and limiting commuter choices. It will also quickly become a major factor in the increasing cost of energy to commute. The loss of productivity, wasted fuel, and lower quality-of-life to Lowcountry commuters working in the Lower Peninsula have been precipitated more by special interest influence and power politics than sound regional land use planning. Most major centers of government, higher education, medicine, law, commerce, tourism, and entertainment have been crammed into the five-pound sack that we know as the Peninsula City. The current city administration’s municipal turf-wars, political mischief, and deal-estate development schemes have concentrated most of the Lowcountry’s major employment centers within the relatively inaccessible Lower Peninsula of Charleston. As the cost of energy continues to increase, the consequences of these ill-conceived actions will likely haunt the Lowcountry for decades to come.

So what are our regional planners and elected officials to do? Decentralization of major employment centers into adjacent suburban hubs may be the most cost-effective, long-term solution to the transportation dilemma and increasing energy costs now facing the Lowcountry. There are only two choices: either move the jobs to where the workers live; or move the workers to where the jobs are located. With gasoline over $4.00 per gallon, the equation of commerce can no longer be dominated by personal political aspirations or the greed of an influential few. Those who would plan the future of the Lowcountry can no longer defend continued development of remote bedroom subdivisions while selfishly clustering the major centers of regional employment into the urban core of Charleston.