Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Go- The Problem of Progress in a Historic City

3 days to #ConChaCo

Note- This is the third of five public statements to be issued by Best Friends of Public Transit to prepare the community for Saturday’s ConChaCo event, a Charleston City Wide Transit Focused Festival along the #20 Upper King / Meeting Bus line linking the Farmer’s Market, Awakening Motion, The Greek Festival, the ConChaCo Pub Crawl & Restaurant Hop and the Night Market. Full information can be found in this previous media release. The Statements will be titled by our organization’s Motto: Together We Go Forward & ConChaCo and will announce a 6 pm event each day to help create better transit in the Lowcountry. Tuesday’s word is “Go.”

Can the Lowcountry Go to better transit or is it doomed to gridlock and cultural frustration which takes out civic leaders like tundra rodents when the winter comes sudden and early. Americans have always been a nation on the go. Settlers arrived in Charleston in 1670 and soon turned the waterways of the lowcountry into a transit system which used the tide and home made barges to link the growing plantations to the city’s port.  Slaves steered barges down to Charleston full or rice, local produce and naval stores with the falling tide, They returned returned upstream with the flood tide on the Ashley, Stono, Cooper and Wando Rivers with imported goods, alcoholic beverages and the primitive machinery like steam powered rice mills which revolutionized agriculture.

By the 1800s as Americans pushed the frontier westward, Charleston found it’s rivers didn’t go far enough inland to assure its prosperity. Savannah had a river which reached far inland. The Savannah could serve the rapidly growing cotton trade which pushed further westward every year burning up land, humans trapped in bondage and the frenzy to acquire that assembled the core of America’s national capital. It’s port flourished at the Port of Charleston’s expense. Charleston’s businessmen built the Santee Canal, which joined the Cooper to the Santee and Congaree but they couldn’t keep it wet. In 1827 men who had never seen a locomotive decided to build a railroad with the goal or reaching Augusta and drinking Savannah’s milkshake. On Christmas day, 1830 the Best Friend of Charleston reached ten miles an hour, the fastest anyone on board had every travelled. Soon there were six powerful and primitive engines running on the line and you could travel from Charleston to Summerville faster than than you can today at rush hour, boarding the trains where the Charleston Visitors Center is Today.

A year ago I took Skyelynn, one of the volunteers working with Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit to see the replica of that train. This is a ritual that is the part of training every volunteer and staff member which works with our organization. The Best Friend is part of a big story which begins with those determined slaves moving barges or ride to Charleston’s port before the revolution and ends, sort of, with Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon. The point of the story is that Americans, even Southerners, used to be serious about gong places and we build the ingrastructure and vehicles we needed to get there. I am sure that the people that saw the Best Friend roaring across it’s strap iron railway up the Charleston Neck 188 years ago felt the same thrill I did when I heard, “Tranquility Base Here, The Eagle Has Landed.”

Skyelynn doesn’t have a memory to march on like that. Her America is a world of snarled traffic, roads with potholes, rising seas which flood East Bay Street deeper and more often and excuses. She worked with us for three years, becoming one of our most effective paid staff members. She labored in our food and beverage industry, biking to work. She got screamed at every day for being in the street on her bike. She paid high local rents. After three years in Charleston, working on many controversial social issues, she took stock. She considered the tiny amounts of progress older activists like me have eked out of a lifetime of meetings here.  I can proudly point to 7 bus stop shelters which are the direct result of my work. Under my leadership, we won 600 million dollars for better transit with the help of Skyelynn, our field coordinator Nicolas Bell and many other wonderful young people.  Most, like Skyelynn took easily obtained jobs in our staff hungry food and beverage industry.

Unfortunately, we have not made the progress on transit that we need or were promised with the referendum. After 3 million dollars in studies, we are in the midst of at least two more studies which I’ve been told will be consolidated into a third, even bigger study.  While we’ve done these studies, the cost of the promised BRT system to Summerville continues to rise by about 2.5 million dollars a month or roughly 54 dollars a minute.  Despite routes proposed in the I26alt study, we have no bus service to any local beach. 11 million dollars to improve CARTA bus routes now has been diverted into an interest free fund for road construction. When we get it back for transit 12 or so years from now, it will buy half the bus service it could today. Vic Rawl calles it the “Pay Go” program because it cuts down on bond costs by sacrificing improved bus service to build turn lanes and maybe 526.  We call it the “We pay, you go” program.  CARTA is threatening another round of cuts in service while they’ve piled up a million dollar surplus this year by giving the Lowcountry less bus service.

Skyelynn has had enough. On Saturday she turned in her gold, Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit shirt and told us she was going to find a place to live where rent was lower, pay was higher and transit was better. She is headed to Austin, LA, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, BC to determine which city deserved the time, energy and creativity which will constitute the remainder of her life.  Charleston has lost its most gifted Anglo American maker of Kim Chi. Let’s hope Momma Kim doesn’t get the itch for light rail and social progress too or we’ll be completely out of locally made high quality Korean style pickled cabbage.

At least Skyelynn didn’t explain her leaving the way one frustrated young artist did to me a few years ago, saying, “I don’t want to waste my life in Charleston like you have.”

Of the 12 young people who worked on our Transit Complete the Penny Campaign in November 2012 at least six have left Charleston. One, Muhiyyidin D’baha, went to New Orleans last year to find and bring back a model for producing social change which might work here. On night in February he was shot and killed in New Orleans. Charleston always tells young people who want something fairer and better that they should leave. Plenty do. 

The Best Friend of Charleston no longer runs West, but there are lots of ways to leave. Nicolas Bell got on his bike and pedaled all the way to Tallahassee Florida where his hip gave out. He hitched a pickup ride the rest of the way to the Big Easy to find out of Law School would provide the hammer he needs to change the world before it dies.

Charleston need to go somewhere before the people we need to make it go all leave. A city of the retired rich, tourists, students and the poor can’t survive.

The promised Bus Rapid Transit system could open up land along 18 miles of transit corridor for affordable housing, transit enabled living and economic opportunity. Young people like Skyelynn and Nicolas could find affordable housing that they could own in high density buildings in places along Rivers Avenue and Highway 78 which only grow weeds now. In Vancouver young people could buy a shoebox studio condo in a 20 story building linked to the Skytrain transit line by a covered walkway for under 36 thousand Canadian dollars when we visited there in 2008.  If it was pouring rain they could reach downtown in 15 minutes without ever getting wet.

Bus Rapid Transit is the third world’s answer to light rail but it works if its done right. (It fails if you fake it by cutting corners like wasting the railroad line into Charleston which people are calling the low line for a dog walking park while you force people to crawl through traffic in shuttle buses for 25 minutes to reach jobs in our tourism district.)

Charleston needs to Go Forward. A city nobody local is willing to visit and which it’s residents plan escape vacations for their weekends isn’t really any more alive than Main Street USA in Disneyworld, which has a much better transit system that we do.

On Saturday, we’ll present ConChaCo to Charleston a day long festival built around the free #20 CARTA bus line. The Recovery room will celebrate the day by participating in the Pub Crawl to benefit our Food and Beverage workers. They’re playing CARTA Kino on the front patio.  You get a ticket and pick the time you believe the next north bound 20 will pass. Then your wait with your neighbors in Charleston’s iconic local dive bar, which sold more PBRs than any bar in America a few years ago.  When the bus appears, everyone rings red cow bells and the winner is decided for that hour.  We celebrate the Northbound bus because that is the ride home for many F&B workers lucky enough to live a short bus ride from their jobs and they’re on their way home after work or perhaps on their way to the Recovery Room, a dive bar so dark tourist rarely dare go there.

Charleston can go forward. We’re gong to push it Saturday. If you want to know more about our efforts see 


For more information contact Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit or (843) 870-5299.

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