York County leaders turn focus to mass transit needs

As Charlotte plans for mass transit, neighboring communities in South Carolina soon may look to join them.

There may be little alternative.

“We talk about roads,” Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study director David Hooper told his group’s policy committee late last week. “We’ve widened most of the roads. I keep saying this. Everyone is not going to be able to get in their own car, with the growth coming just over the next 10 years, and go their way into the future. That is not going to be a workable option — period.”

Hooper said mass transit here is a growing discussion among regional planners. It’s expensive. It isn’t immediate. But he asked leaders from York County, Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Tega Cay, Indian Land and beyond to start thinking now of ways to make it happen.

“We’re going to have to have more than one way to move around,” Hooper said.

The Charlotte Observer reported Jan. 23 the Charlotte Area Transit System is recommending a new east-west light-rail line north of Uptown, bus transit to Mooresville, N.C., and studying service to Ballantyne. The recommendations include crossing county lines and, in the Ballantyne case, service nearly up to the South Carolina line. The report also noted estimates of $5 billion-$7 billion for full transit buildout through 2030.

York and Lancaster county leaders say they need the same kind of vision.

“That’s an issue for us to consider as to how we’d like to leave our community for those that come after us,” said John Gettys, Rock Hill mayor. “It’s not a decision that we would make for those of us in the room.”

Gettys said York County would have to take the lead, but his city would be happy to come alongside them for discussion.

“We’re ready to come to the table anytime,” Gettys said.

Mayor Guynn Savage from Fort Mill referenced the new CATS recommendations in discussing what her county needs, not in debating whether to have mass transit but in figuring out how to pay for it.

“Isn’t it really just about funding?” she said. “Because I don’t see that there’s another option to do what Mayor Gettys has suggested, that we leave it better than we found it. But it’s all about where the funding comes from.”

Conversation for mass transit in York County isn’t at a pricing point yet. There was a 2007 study into what a transit line from downtown Rock Hill to Pineville, N.C., would cost. Pineville is the southernmost light rail stop on the CATS system.

“Bus rapid transit was $500 million, 12 years ago,” Hooper said. “Light rail was $1.2 billion, 12 years ago.”

Revisiting transit would again bring a hefty price tag, he said.

“You’re talking about more than any one jurisdiction or collection of jurisdictions can raise,” Hooper told the policy committee. “State (transportation departments) don’t have this kind of money.”

Mass transit would require some type of local taxation dedicated to transit. Putting a transit authority line on property tax bills or something similar to the Pennies for Progress cent sales tax for roads in York County could be options. State and federal money would be needed, plus user revenue from the transit.

Brian Carnes, Lancaster County Council member who represents Indian Land on the RFATS committee, said there would be challenges with the various taxing options like adding onto property tax bills.

“We’re going to have to look at our state representatives on that too, because everybody’s pretty much capped on raising that kind of taxes,” Carnes said.

Yet, some leaders say, even the likely costs well beyond what municipalities alone could budget shouldn’t deter leaders from looking at transit.

“It’s getting more expensive every day we delay the decision to do it,” Savage said.

S.C. Sen. Wes Climer said with counties and municipalities able to issue general obligation debt, special purpose districts and existing transptation infrastructure funding, there are options to pool enough local money to get the larger federal dollars.

“Some combination thereof I think could accommodate the local need to achieve that kind of project,” Climer said.

Regional transit planners already have met to discuss possible planning. Hooper was asked to be part of an upcoming panel discussion with CATS CEO John Lewis, he told the policy committee.

“You are going to hear more from within the region about this,” he said. “It is moving forward.”

For area elected officials, transit is more than just coming up with the money.

“That’s identifying the route, identifying how it’s zoned so that development doesn’t occur up on that route, where it comes across the line and down to us,” Gettys said. “We can do that now. Not doing that now is what will make the future unbearable.”

Leaders aren’t at the point yet of having defined routes or costs. Still, Hooper told the group, land use decisions in light of transit are critical.

“If the corridor is not preserved — right now it’s U.S. 21 — if you don’t preserve a viable rapid transit alternative and we keep building out to the point where there’s no more developable land and the only option is everyone sit on the corridor of 160 and Celanese to wait to get on 77 and then wait to go north…the level of frustration will be beyond manageable,” Hooper said.

The population expected to come into the Charlotte region in coming years make the transit discussion important, policy committee members say.

“Two Raleighs are supposed to come into Charlotte over the next 30 years,” Hooper said of population estimates. “Beyond where we are today.”

Already in places like the Kingsley section of Fort Mill, gridlocked traffic has road planners looking for solutions before residents and workers can’t get from place to place.

“You will have all kinds of operational dysfunction,” Hooper told the group. “You’ll hear it from businesses who are losing employees or can’t attract them in the first place. We’re going to have to have another realistic option out there.”

York County Councilman Britt Blackwell echoed several others stating a need to take a hard look at mass transit, even if it’s something only likely to help children or grandchildren of the people making decisions now.

“(Even) that’s not going to happen if we don’t get on the ball,” Blackwell said.

By John Marks, Staff Reporter with The Fort Mill Times