Summer in the Lowcountry is right around the corner, which can only mean one thing for most of the area's residents: gridlock. On Memorial Day weekend alone the Isle of Palms Connector was shut down twice for accidents, which delayed traffic on and off the island for hours at a time.
Meanwhile, traffic along the area's two interstates continues to be a crapshoot during peak hours, and the flow of traffic on those arteries naturally affects traffic on the secondary and tertiary roads that connect to them. As an added bonus, the people of Charleston learned last week what can happen when the area's major internet provider loses service thanks to a cut fiber optic cable. In short, the Charleston area continues to fall victim to poor infrastructure choices. And it is only a matter of time before the area faces a serious traffic crisis, whether it's caused by a hurricane evacuation or another visit from Vice President Joe Biden, who is a natural disaster for many people.
As I mentioned in a piece last year, these troubles are nothing new. The Lowcountry's traffic problems were an issue for urban planners in the 1960s and 1970s, when the area saw a sudden population explosion. Today, the Charleston area is growing rapidly once again; in fact, it has doubled in population since 1960. Yet the Holy City remains tied to a single major traffic artery in and out of town, an aging set of highways, and an Amtrak line that barely connects us to the rest of the country (if you were thinking of taking the train to Atlanta, pack two lunches — it's an 18-hour trip). Meanwhile, there is a proposal to upgrade passenger train service between Atlanta and Charlotte, but the proposed line will not run through Charleston. Instead, it will go through the Upstate. So much for becoming a hub for the new "knowledge economy."
We can rely on tourism to bring in the cash, but the carrying capacity for tourists downtown and on area beaches seems to be near its limit. Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and Police Chief Greg Mullen worry that an ugly incident at a downtown bar might tarnish Charleston's "brand." However, it is far more likely that a visitor's decision to return to Charleston next year hinges more on how long they waited in traffic after getting off I-26 on a Friday or Saturday morning than increased security in the so-called Upper King Street Entertainment District. Vacation time is vacation money, or so I've heard.
Of course, it is not only the tourists who are suffering. Last week's Comcast outage forced hundreds of area businesses into the wrong kind of black, as phone and internet service went dark following a cut fiber optic line at a Comcast facility just outside of Charleston. It is hard to imagine the damage an outage like that could do if it came at the wrong time during a natural disaster (again, I'm thinking of hurricanes, but I know how many of you feel about the vice president).
For ages, conventional wisdom has told us not to put all of our eggs in one basket, but folksy truths are no match for the wave of marketing campaigns urging us to "bundle" our services. Attaching our phone and internet needs to a single provider makes fiscal sense in the short run, but an outage in one service typically means an outage in both. If the goal of Charleston's business community, particularly its tech-economy wing, is to turn the Holy City into a Silicon Harbor, then maybe it is time to consider that we need more docks if we want to keep the port open. In order to prevent Comcastrophe, Charleston needs several new broadband companies in order to prevent internet outages from crippling the area's ability to conduct business.
The same is true for our physical infrastructure. Charleston should lobby the state and federal government to upgrade the existing roads in and out of the area and to locate viable alternative pathways to connect us directly to more places than just, say, Columbia. And the worst part of these problems is not their mere existence. It's that the solutions are obvious and well known, but in an area like ours that is conflicted by the competing desires to enter the 21st century while staying firmly in the 19th, these solutions remain politically unpopular. The people of Charleston must take a hard look at whether or not we are content to be a physical and digital backwater to the rest of the nation.