Perhaps the worst kept secret in the Charleston metro area these days is that it already seems overcrowded, yet all indications point to an influx of people that will put the metro area at the top of the population count for the state of South Carolina in the next decade. While Mt. Pleasant passed a moratorium on new apartment approvals a few months back, the City of Charleston is moving ahead on an unfathomable 11 developments with the potential to house 200,000 people. The news is full of celebratory cheer about many of these developments, but a single question lingers for many people: Are we ready for this?
It's hard to believe, but I've been writing for the City Paper now for about four years. In some cities, four years is 80 percent of the last "five-year plan" that might address growth, job creation, housing, infrastructure, and all the assorted odds and ends facing a small- to medium- sized city. Despite the fact that we haven't had an official census in that time, everyone knows that Charleston is growing — if that's even the right word for it. Growth is natural, after all, and is likely far preferable to the alternatives of stagnation and decay.
Yet, it's hard to escape the weird feeling that the growth in Charleston and the surrounding areas isn't quite natural. It's driven almost as much by developers looking to make a buck as it is by people fleeing whatever circumstances they face at home for the better times on down the road, as songwriter James McMurtry once sang.
But it was almost 30 years ago that McMurtry's "I'm Not From Here" was recorded and released on his debut album Too Long in the Wasteland, and even that was over a decade removed from a quote I found while writing one of my first columns for the City Paper back in 2012. The quote was from the transportation director for the Berkeley-Dorcester-Charleston Council of Governments in 1977. Back then, traffic woes were big news.
Flash forward now almost 40 years, and we're still experiencing those woes. Last Friday, my usual six-hour trip to my mountain homelands in Virginia stretched out to just over seven, due largely in part to the extra hour it took to travel the 14 or so miles from just inside 526 to Summerville. This isn't a new phenomenon, no matter how much our leaders want to pretend that it all just started yesterday or last month or last year. As evidenced by the report from 1977, traffic problems have plagued Charleston longer than probably half of your neighbors have lived here.
And there's simply no sign it's going to get better. The idea of completing 526 is merely waiting for someone to come kick some loose dirt over it and say a few heartfelt words. Public transit improvements are a long-running joke (unless, of course, you consider free wi-fi in lieu of a properly funded, wide-scale transit system something not worth snickering over). Light rail is an even crueler joke; it was mentioned back in 1977, but it looks unlikely to happen before the flood waters claim downtown Charleston.
In what might be a victory, we could see a bike lane appear on a bridge that should have been replaced years ago, which will serve some smallish number of commuters that may or may not either reduce traffic or impede it. It all depends on who you wish to believe, really. Still, depending on whether or not the seas do rise or if it really was all some communist plot to wreck America's energy industry (for reasons that are as obtuse as they are insane), the cyclists can at least wade to whatever's left of downtown and carry their bikes with them.
And this is just the problem with the main roads in the area. There isn't really time to discuss the 18th century roads downtown, roads which aren't capable of handling 21st century American traffic. There's still the issue of our area's aging gas, power, and water lines. If I believed in miracles, I might say that they're the only reason a block of downtown hasn't been vaporized over the last decade due to a massive gas explosion.
Moreover, the Charleston metro area is a bizarre patchwork of overlapping public service jurisdictions and boundaries. The desire of many communities not to get sucked into larger ones has created a bizarre situation in which, again, perhaps it is a miracle that no one's house has burned to the ground — because none of these individual jurisdictions could figure out whose area the property was in.
One thing is clear in all this mess, though: the Charleston area has less than a decade to figure this out. If there's one thing for certain, it's that if people move here to find a better life only to realize there isn't one, they are just as likely to move back to where they came from. And down that path, friends, is stagnation and decay.