CARTA chair and City Councilman Mike Seekings talks about workforce transportation and a new 23-mile rapid-transit bus lineNov 09, 2018 10:44AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Dustin Waters
When Mike Seekings became chair of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) board in 2015, he had three main goals in mind: rein in a massive spending deficit, replace one of the oldest fleets in the nation, and find new concepts to better serve the public.
Today, the system, which ran a $6 million deficit as recently as 2016, is out of debt. Half of the region's 110 buses have been replaced, a number that will soon include the fleet's first electric buses, which thanks to a recent $1.5 million grant will be purchased from Greenville-based manufacturer Proterra.
But with those major strides for CARTA aside, Seekings still faces the challenge of selling the idea of public transportation to a region where almost 90 percent of workers commute to the office every day by car. To do so, he intends to draw inspiration from a few unlikely sources.
“One of the things I looked at really closely that's so easy to see and be part of is in the inner part of Amsterdam. They have a trolley system,” says Seekings, who recently traveled to the Netherlands as part of the City of Charleston's delegation to study flooding solutions. “With us working on Lowcountry Rapid Transit, trying to figure out how we are going to terminate it in the downtown area, and knowing that we've had a history in the downtown area with a trolley system, I'd love to see us try to implement it.”
Although initial construction for a dedicated bus rapid transit line running from Summerville to downtown Charleston is at least five years away, the long-term project is prepared to hit a major milestone in October.
Upon returning to the United States, Seekings and others behind the project will sign the first contracts for engineering plans and details for the Lowcountry Rapid Transit project. While the project still must undergo an environmental impact assessment, Seekings is confident that the bus rapid transit service will provide a dynamic shift for public transportation in the region.
“It's exciting because it represents for the first time a major commitment by our community in transportation infrastructure,” he says. “If you think about it, since 1670, when Charleston was founded, we've never had a large-scale regional transportation project. This will be the first one. And that's rare in the world.”
Moving along the spine of the region, the bus rapid transit line is estimated to provide a total of 6,874 daily trips for commuters across its 23-mile corridor, which includes dedicated traffic lanes. This is welcome relief for the area as more and more of the local workforce spreads throughout the region – lengthening daily commutes and clogging major roadways. Once the initial Lowcountry Rapid Transit line is completed, Seekings expects additional service lines to be added, branching out to reach additional communities.
“People are coming from all over, especially in the hospitality industry. There are 7,000 hospitality workers. They are not all going to be living on the peninsula, even if they can afford it. And they can't,” Seekings says. “So we have people coming in from all over the place. The workforce is what I really am aimed at, to make sure we can get people to and from work. That's what any good, vibrant community has in place — a transportation infrastructure that can get you to work.”
One recent success in serving the peninsula's hospitality industry is CARTA's Hospitality on Peninsula (HOP) Park and Ride Shuttle service, which set a ridership record of 11,400 in August, a 15 percent increase over July.
A 2017 survey conducted by the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis found that only one-fifth of Charleston's downtown hospitality workers actually lived on the peninsula. To determine what effect the HOP service was having on those commuting to the peninsula each day, a rider survey was conducted in June. According to those results, more than half of HOP riders responded that they live outside the peninsula — a good indicator that the new service is having a wide-reaching effect.
Of course, there remain those who refuse to use public transportation in any form. The College of Charleston's Office of Tourism survey found that 20 percent of the peninsula's hospitality workers stated that they were unwilling to consider CARTA's services. For Seekings, the region will need to see a change in attitudes if public transportation is ever going to be a success locally.
“Culturally, we in the Southeast and Charleston in particular right now are not there. It's going to take a cultural shift. It's also going to take a pragmatic shift,” he says. “Sooner or later, people are going to get sick of being in traffic. If you can find transit that moves in and around traffic more efficiently, more safely, they can have a predictable life, and it's an alternative to getting in their car, it'll be a success. Lowcountry Rapid Transit, increased growth, better service — all that in a package brings you to a place where you'll get some — not complete, but some — buy-in.”