Transit advocates are drafting a plan to build a hub in the Vista that would connect riders to Charlotte by rail and double as an uptown terminal that would upgrade the Columbia-area’s anemic bus system.
But making the idea happen is well down the line: Public support is likely to be questionable, and crucial federal funding is a long way off.
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The good news is that rail lines to Charlotte exist, local leaders are building support for the plan and Amtrak — whose station on Pulaski Street is a practical location for both rail and bus service — can become the engine for the plan, advocates say.
The fuel that could drive the proposal would be rising gasoline prices.
If the dream is realized, it could break up a love affair capital city commuters have with their cars and might marry urban bus riders and suburban drivers under one roof, according to its backers.
“We need to start thinking bigger about how transportation works in our lives,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said last week. A transit terminal “becomes a real hub for economic activity because you’re moving that many people, that amount of foot traffic.”
Business day-trippers and shoppers could use the line to Charlotte. And commuters could get on board at points along the line.
Benjamin would not put a price tag on the project. “We haven’t done that much due diligence yet,” he said.
Norman Whitaker, director of the Central Midlands Regional Planning Council, which endorsed a Columbia-to-Charlotte commuter line in 2006 but shelved the plan largely because there was no money, described the new proposal as being “in the exploratory stage.”
Yet a literal busload of advocates – some would call them dreamers – is working to make this new jump into modern urban transportation.
Ryan Nevius was among about two dozen Columbia-area leaders who traveled by bus last week to drink in Charlotte’s successful, multifaceted transit system.
“We believe that for the future of Columbia we need to create the vision – (or) … we can chose to be a Podunk spot in the middle of the state,” said Nevius, director of Sustainable Midlands, a coalition of environmental groups that support green spaces and alternative transportation.
A hub in the Vista?
Those on the bus Wednesday agree that federal transportation and rail money is the key to their goal.
But first, proponents have to meet to refine the plan, which will include a feasibility study that could cost up to $1 million and take as much as a year to complete, said Hart Baker, a senior official with responsibility for the transit and freight program at the state Department of Transportation. He was on the trip to review the Queen City’s transit center.
Federal funds would pick up 80 percent of the study’s cost, Baker said. The rest must come from state and local coffers.
Baker said he became aware of the transit center and rail line plan about six weeks ago when Benjamin approached him. DOT shepherds tens of millions of dollars in federal highway and rail funds into South Carolina.
If the feasibility study supports the proposal, federal rules require an environmental impact analysis followed by a formal application for construction money, Baker said.
A location has yet to be decided. But USC transportation director Derrick Huggins, a liaison between Columbia’s bus system and political and business leaders, envisions remodeling and enlarging the Amtrak station into an attractive, safe and well-run two-story building that would blend into the architecture in the Vista. It would offer restaurants, coffee shops and offices.
There would be enough space for buses to get in and out on time, unlike the current Sumter Street terminal, which is confined to a city block, preventing buses from lining up to keep riders on schedule, and was not built to be a transportation hub.
The terminal also suffers an image problem – homeless people huddle there in the winter, and state and local prisoners who don’t have their own transportation home are dropped there when they are released.
In the meantime, transit officials must take the commuter rail idea to Norfolk Southern, which runs freight on the lines it owns between Columbia and Charlotte. Amtrak uses those rails with permission. Public rail systems, too, can get access by going through Amtrak, which is entitled to use rails as long as they work with a rail company’s travel schedule and the commuter train stays under 79 mph, Baker said.
Another issue is that Norfolk Southern has warning lights and gates on 79 of its 108 road crossings along the South Carolina route to Charlotte, said Roy Tolson, a DOT rail specialist. That means 29 do not meet federal safety standards and would have to improved.
Asked how long it would take for riders to begin using the system, Baker said, “I’m not going to give you a timetable. That’s still out there in the ether world.”
Creating the system also is likely to mean that the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority would surrender control because it has no power to oversee rail or a system that goes beyond its geographic reach, Baker said.
The new system probably would have to be run by DOT in an agreement with Amtrak, Baker said.
But Joyce Dickerson, CMRTA board chairwoman, said a rail hub cannot happen until the metropolitan bus system is running well and has shored up its finances.
“Nothing can be done until we nail down the buses,” she said. “Then we will be able to add this next piece.”
The bus system is under duress.
Richland County voters last fall narrowly rejected a sales tax increase that would have guaranteed a fixed source of income. The city of Columbia stepped up in February by adopting a $3.6 million additional surcharge on utility bills to pay its share of the bus service.
But city leaders are now hinting that Richland County and Lexington County must agree to more than year-to-year contributions. Richland County Council has pledged about $1.7 million next year, while Lexington County and its three cities that contribute haven’t budged from their $100,000 annual payment.
On top of that, new CMRTA board appointees are pushing to restructure the body and to solicit for a private company to run the buses. Some are dissatisfied with Veolia Transportation, which has operated the system under contract since 2002. In that swirl of those pressures, the organization has been without a director for more than three months and has been relying on Huggins.
Still, Dickerson said she is optimistic. She hopes the key disputes are settled or close to being settled by the time her two-year term ends in November. Marrying a more solid bus system and commuter rail are inevitable, she said.
“It’s not a pipe dream,” she said on the bus ride to Charlotte. “It’s going to happen. Period.”
Queen City transit
Charlotte and Mecklenburg County officials teamed with city-based bank presidents to create a transit system in the early 1990s that would invigorate its downtown and encourage suburbanites to leave their cars behind.
The city provided $10 million in land and what is now Bank of America came up with the balance, said Olaf Kinard, marketing director for the Charlotte Area Transit System, who led the Columbia group on a tour of the $20 million transit center.
A dedicated sales tax helps pay for the system.
CATS has become a $101 million annual operation that transports between 35,000 and 45,000 people on about 85,000 trips each weekday, Kinard said. About half use the midtown transit center, a large hangar-like building with a 33-person security force and a food court and is surrounded by restaurants and shops.
The commuter rail and bus system has spurred an estimated $1.4 billion in private investment along its lines, Kinard said. That investment is projected to bring in $18 million in property taxes in 2015, up from $6 million in 2000, he said.
Commuter rail provides the tipping point in a successful transit system, Kinard told the group. “If you build it, people will ride.”
Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx gave the Columbia group some advice.
“You’ve got to be real with people about how much it costs,” he said. “The numbers are really big and it’s tough (to sell). But I can tell you it’s worth it.”
Columbia is not Charlotte
“We have to figure out how to scale that down for the Columbia market,” said Russ Meekins, chief financial officer for USC’s foundations, who also was on the day trip.
Many of the handpicked leaders who rode to Charlotte said the up-close look was worth their time.
But Columbia’s transit challenges contrast with Charlotte’s when that city was at its crossroads.
The capital city lacks business heavy hitters who are putting their companies’ money on the line. A single political leader had not shouldered the responsibility, a role Benjamin right now is taking on. Metropolitan Columbia is not as large or growing as quickly as Charlotte then or now. And the backing for the Columbia area’s bus system is shaky.
Making a transit hub real will be tough in a city with a history of taking small steps.
“We have our own dynamics,” DOT’s Baker said. In Columbia, “It’s going to require leadership with vision. It’s going to require a good working relationship among the governmental players. It’s going to require marketing and promotion. It’s still, in the final analysis, going to have to be our system.”
As one of the realists on the bus put it: “Columbia doesn’t do big things well.”