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Greenville Business Magazine

Upstate Overview: Curing Congestion - On the Road To Better Mobility

Jul 05, 2018 11:23AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By John Jeter

When it comes to planes, trains, and automobiles, South Carolina boasts ample infrastructure: airports, seaports, and inland ports; rail lines; and more road mileage per capita than any other state. That’s not the problem. The Upstate’s predicament, a new study says, is popularity—with a contagious side effect: congestion.

“I know this isn’t a surprise: rapid growth,” says Lydia Statz, a planner with Raleigh, N.C.-headquartered Kimley-Horn, a consultancy that participated in the Horizon 2040 study, published in April. “The Upstate is a great place to live and work, people are moving here, that’s a great opportunity. It’s also a challenge.”

In typical Upstate fashion, officials are laying prescriptions. Outlined in the long-range transportation plan, solutions over the next two decades envision bicycle and pedestrian enhancements, autonomous vehicles, and ride-sharing, along with road improvements, to name a few. 

Yet, says Stephen Stansbery, vice president of Kimley-Horn, “There isn’t a community out there, a region out there, that’s been able to build themselves out of congestion. There’s just not enough money, nor is it realistic. It’s not a sustainable business model.”

Statz and Stansbery made their comments in March to nearly three dozen leaders from the private- and public-sectors and nonprofit, economic-development, and conservation groups representing several counties. The stakeholders convened as part of the “Connecting Our Future” regional initiative being coordinated by Ten at the Top, that is looking to build a vision and actionable strategies to connect the many individual efforts by local governments and transportation organizations across the Upstate.

TATT and regional partners launched the initiative last year with these goals:

- Reduce congestion
- Increase connectivity and mobility
- Move people and freight safely
- Improve quality of life and health
- Reduce emissions

At a Connecting Our Future three-hour “Ideas Exchange,” held a month before the official release of Horizon 2040’s first draft, Stansbery discussed supply vs. demand in solving transportation and mobility problems—that is, infrastructure assets in relation to the Upstate’s booming population.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated 1.4 million people in the Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson area alone. The Upstate’s population will near 1.7 million by 2040, reports say.

“The supply side of transportation is the thing we’ve focused almost exclusively on over the last 50 years,” Stansbery said. “There’s more demand, more people driving. So we need to widen our roads and build more of them to accommodate the traffic.”

He added, “If you’re not equally paying attention to the demand side, you really are trying to fight the fight with one arm behind your back.” 

So, he said, “We all wised up and realized we’re only looking at part of the equation: how we grow, where we grow, when we travel, and how we travel need to be considered—and, in some cases, whether we need to travel.”

Many, if not most, of those issues are covered in Horizon 2040. Resulting from work started two years ago, the report comes from the Greenville-Pickens Area Transportation Study. GPATS, which plans for and allocates transportation funds, covers 777 square miles of the Upstate, or nearly three times the size of Charlotte; GPATS includes parts of Greenville, Pickens, Anderson, Laurens, and Spartanburg counties. Greenville accounts for 55 percent of GPATS.

Under federal law, Metropolitan Planning Organizations in urbanized areas with populations larger than 50,000 must conduct long-range transportation plans, or LRTPs. Surveys of various Upstate counties, from Anderson to Spartanburg, show those governments with LRTPs begun in 2015 through 2017 with projections, like Horizon 2040, into 2040. In addition, the Appalachian Council of Governments, comprised of six Upstate counties, has an LRTP, too. 

“Horizon 2040 is more than just a plan and a funding mechanism,” the last page of the 100-page report says. “With this document, the leaders and citizens of the Upstate region can set the stage for the region’s future and how this quickly growing region will accommodate its needs in the coming decades.”

As for financing, the study says, “To clear Greenville area’s congested roads, a $307 million plan reveals a 25-year strategy”—and that doesn’t include, for instance, the massive $231 million Gateway Project at the I-85/I-385 junction.

The Shaping Our Future Regional Growth Scenario Analysis released in 2017, which included “2040 Project Revenue and Costs—Trend Growth Model,” projects $329 million in revenues, with $659.8 million projected as the “cost to serve” road improvements in 2040.

Take a look at Horizon 2040’s page 32. A map illustrates the Upstate’s roadways and how the network is “expected to perform in the year 2040 if the currently committed and funding roadways are completed.” The map looks like a tangle of veins, with varying colors denoting asphalt arteriosclerosis.

Even with expected improvements, the adjacent paragraph says, “regional growth is projected to lead to more congestion.”

Nevertheless, Upstate officials remain optimistic.

Dave Edwards, Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport’s president and CEO, a key leader in Upstate transportation, recently completed a $125 million terminal renovation last year. 

“We’re trying to look really long-term, to talk about a real vision for the future,” he says, “and when we talk just in general, such as the whole movement toward autonomous-type vehicles, whether it’s trucks or cars or aircraft, those are what we’re taking into consideration.”

He knows growth. Cargo at GSP went up 42 percent from last year, he says.

Edwards also mentions a Personal Rapid Transit system, a monorail of sorts featuring pod cars running from satellite parking lots to the terminal. He envisions such a PRT on campus in five years, though he’s hoping government agencies and the private sector contribute to expanding the line to connect the airport to downtown Greenville—and beyond.

John Lummus, president/CEO of Upstate SC Alliance, says, essentially, why not?

“Connecting the airport is very costly, but if you look comparatively at $350 million to $400 million on I-85 and I-385 improvements, you could go a long way with those funds with a light-rail project.”

The Upstate is taking an aggressive approach to reducing cars on the road, he says, adding: “I think that with autonomous vehicles, smart mobility, Greenville’s already started making some strides. In looking at that, I think Greenville could be an excellent candidate to be a Smart City.”

One role model: Columbus, Ohio. 

As Stansbery told participants at the Connecting Our Future “Ideas Exchange,” “We need to be sure that every dollar that is spent or decision we make does as much to advance all things that are important to us in the region: economic competiveness, connecting people with places where they work, the workforce connection—so that we’ve got a vibrant set of neighborhoods, a healthy place, a safe place.”

Data Driving Mobility Solutions
Our lives today are data-driven, so it only makes sense that data should drive us to our actual destinations—work, school, and appointments. Now, it appears, we can harness a vast number-crunching platform to drive an entire regional mobility network.

Hello, Columbus.

Columbus, Ohio now has $50 million in grant money to revolutionize its transportation system using data. 

Home to nearly 900,000 people, Ohio State University’s 45,000 undergraduates, and five Fortune 500 corporate headquarters, Columbus competed against 77 U.S. cities in the Smart City Challenge. The city won $40 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, the Microsoft cofounder’s foundation.

“The City of Columbus didn’t propose technology for the sake of technology,” says Michael Stevens, the state capital’s chief innovation officer. “The city proposed technical solutions to real problems being experienced by our residents.”

How does this first-of-its-kind program work?

Under the USDOT grant, Smart Columbus is pursuing a portfolio of eight mobility projects, each designed to test new technologies—from autonomous vehicles to trip-planning applications to connected vehicles. 

Key to each project’s success is yet another one in the portfolio: the Smart Columbus Operating System. The integrated, holistic open-data platform will aggregate the city’s mobility data to power new apps and technologies to solve mobility challenges. 

In its debut, the operation system published 1,100 datasets that public- and private-sector developers can access to create solutions, Stevens says.

In an email, he explains:

“Sample datasets include food-bank data that may be used to help hungry families access groceries; the locations of low bridges in Franklin County, which may be used to help prevent dangerous bridge strikes by oversized trucks; and data on geographic concentrations of older adults, which may be combined with public transit data to identify ways to better serve the mobility needs of Columbus seniors.”

Stevens quotes Mayor Andrew J. Gintner: “If we can expand access to affordable, reliable, safe transportation, residents can gain greater access to school, work, healthcare, and even healthy food. By providing access to those resources, we can put our residents on ladders of opportunity toward a better life.”

Another bonus: The city’s public and private sectors have also committed to more than $510 million in smart mobility initiatives in the region, Columbus officials say.

“The journey to becoming a Smart City isn’t one you can take alone,” Stevens says.

In South Carolina, Ten at the Top, a coalition of stakeholders from across the Upstate’s 10 counties, launched “Connecting Our Future: Upstate Mobility and Connectivity Initiative” last year to build just that level of cooperation and generate a regional vision and actionable strategies for moving people and goods across the region. TATT will unveil those results Aug. 7 at TD Convention Center, 1 Enterprise Drive.

Back in Ohio, Stevens says, “Eighty-five percent of midsize cities look like Columbus: a downtown core with suburban sprawl. We believe that if we can prove technologies to be successful in Columbus, they can work elsewhere in the country and the world. Which is why we’re taking our role as a model city so seriously.”

Transit in Transition
As the old saying goes, money makes the world go ’round. Financing Greenville’s mass-transit network is the answer to making the wheels of the city’s woefully under-resourced bus system keep rolling, officials say. Simply compare Greenville’s Greenlink with similar operations in cities of comparable size.

“Greenlink spent 69 percent less on operations and 98 percent less on capital than its peers,” according to a Greenlink report released in April. Those peers included Columbia, Charleston, and Baton Rouge, La., among eight cities whose populations are within 5 percentage points of Greenville’s.

Here’s a sampling of total annual operations and capital spending for each: 

- Baton Rouge’s Capital Area Transit (CATS) — $35.3 million
- Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority 
- (CARTA) — $21.4 million
- Columbia’s The Comet — $18.7 million
- Greenville’s Greenlink — $5.3 million
- Average of all eight peer cities, excluding Greenville — $20.8 million

Those are figures from 2016, the same year, incidentally, that Piedmont Health Foundation released a blistering report saying Greenlink has “long failed to meet most riders’ (and non-riders’) expectations for mobility in the community.”

Katy Smith, the foundation’s executive director, says that when the nonprofit organization began its Greenlink study in 2015, “As we talked to everyone about what’s the biggest health issue, transportation came up again and again.” For obvious reasons, she says: 8 percent of Greenville County households don’t own cars, thus limiting access to employment and, importantly, health care.

Founded in 1983, PHF is a “philanthropic foundation aimed at identifying issues and catalyzing action,” she says.

The call to action served, in part, to spur Greenlink to conduct a Comprehensive Operations Analysis in 2017. 

“The community survey results highlighted that non-riders are not using Greenlink because it doesn’t serve where they need to go, it doesn’t run late enough, and it takes too long,” says Gary Shepard, the city’s transportation director and Greenlink chief.

The result: the just-released, 66-page “Greenlink 2020-2024 Transit Development Plan” lays out proposals to “make the case for additional transit funding for the service expansion.” The blueprint calls for, among other proposals, $42 million in capital expenditures in vehicles and facilities from 2021 through 2029.

Extending bus-service frequency and implementing 19 routes, just two of several enhancements named in the study, “would require a significant increase in investment from our community,” Shepard says.

Smith, who says PHF has been “an ally the whole time” with Greenlink, voices optimism that Greenville will muster the will—and financing—to improve mass transit.

“So many people have been hungering to see change, either because we’re too innovative not to do this, or they have too many clients who need the service,” she says, referring to Greenlink’s ridership of nearly 750,000 people.

Greenlink’s proposed “Implementation Plan” calls for operating costs—and investments—doubling from the current level of about $5 million by 2024.

If the city were to fully execute Greenlink’s vision and PHF were to conduct a follow-up study, Smith says, “Our report would say that our external assessment Greenlink demonstrates that they are a great system, that they are an extremely efficient system compared with their peers.”

Finally, she says, “Really, the only next step is for the public, the local government to invest in higher levels, and beyond that, for the private sector to consider ways to partner and invest in the system.”