Commuter rail’s ‘Catch-22’

By Shelia Watson

Commuter rail in the Lowcountry has found itself in a “Catch-22” situation: Almost everyone involved in studying the possibility agrees that it is certainly a good idea—even critical to future economic development—but that it will be difficult if not impossible to pay for.

Jennifer Humphreys of Wilbur Smith Associates, who was project manager for the $50,000 preliminary study conducted this summer, concluded in the study that passenger service between Charleston and Summerville is feasible and could help reduce traffic on Interstate 26 by putting nearly 1,800 people on the trains every day.

However, transportation officials are stymied at where the money would come from to establish and maintain the rail service.

Both Humphreys and Howard Chapman, executive director of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority, said that, best-case scenario, a commuter rail system would take at least 10 years to get up and running.

Creating a rail service using an existing Norfolk Southern freight line was estimated in the preliminary study at a cost of $46 million, which does not include the millions of dollars that could be needed for construction of right of way acquisition, train stations or utility changes.

The service also would require an initial $1.4-million-per-year subsidy to make up the difference between operating costs and fare box receipts.

Doug Frate, chief transit planner for the South Carolina Department of Transportation, said a 10-mile light rail system being constructed in Charlotte is expected to cost $430 million.

Nevertheless, Frate said rail service is a good alternative to highway construction.

“You can’t build your way out of congestion,” he said. “You can’t keep building new roads thinking that’s going to solve everything. New highway construction tends to attract and increase development; therefore it’s imperative to look at alternatives like rail.”

Frate said that the time it can take to get the commuter rail concept to reality depends on the source of funding.

“It would be hard to put a definite time frame on it,” he said. “If you’re getting funds from the Federal Transit Administration, they have a very defined process to be followed. But if you’re going with local—that is, non-FTA funds that would be a combination of local and state monies—it may be an entirely different time frame.”

Frate noted that regardless of the time frame, getting a good bus-to-rail “feeder system” in place is “integral to this working.”

“You have to have a supportive feeder system,” he said. “So that will require a little bit of coordination, especially if there are multiple transit providers in the area. You have to do a bit of work to bring people either to the rail origin (to get on the train) or to their destination (after the train arrives at the other end).

“So you’ll need the feeder system on both ends, and it’ll have to be a well coordinated plan. But that’s something that can be done now, without waiting for other things to fall into place.”

Frate noted that from a planning perspective, there is still a great deal of analysis work that needs to be done.

That suggestion was seconded by local transportation planners. After a Charleston Metro Chamber-sponsored regional growth forum held last month, the Commuter Rail Subcommittee recommended that the Charleston Area Transportation Study fund the more in-depth study that was outlined by Humphreys.

The proposed $75,000 study would consider passenger rail service to Moncks Corner and West Ashley, as well as review in more detail a plan for commuter rail service from Charleston to Summerville.

Among the issues Frate suggested studying is the unique shape of the downtown area.

“We have to look at the limits of the existing infrastructure,” he said. “There are only so many ways to get into the peninsula, so we have built-in constraints.”

Published in Charleston Regional Business Journal