Transit Advocates Target High-Profile Congressional Race in South Carolina

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has an answer for everything. He can explain why he lied about hiking the Appalachian Trail when in fact he was in Buenos Aires with his mistress. He can explain why he trespassed into his ex-wife’s house, violating the terms of their divorce. But here’s one thing he doesn’t have an answer for: a questionnaire about transit.

Welcome to Bosnia -- er, Charleston. The city's Amtrak station could use a facelift. Photo: Hungryneck Straphangers

The Hungryneck Straphangers, a grassroots transit advocacy group based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, issued a questionnaire to both candidates in the special Congressional election for Rep. Tim Scott’s seat (which he vacated to take Sen. Jim DeMint’s seat, which he vacated to be the frontman for the Heritage Foundation). They only received one response – from Sanford’s Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch.

That was after the group invited all the primary candidates to ride the buses with them and discuss the challenges facing transit riders. The majority of candidates took them up on it. Sanford didn’t.

Americans for Transit and the Amalgamated Transit Union have teamed up with the local straphanger group to push public transportation into the forefront of this high-profile campaign. Last week, they canvassed voters at five express bus stops around Charleston [PDF] and ran a training session for “transit voter empowerment.” They’re also going outside the urban core to “where transit is scarce or nonexistent.”

For the ATU, it’s the continuation of an effort they started last fall, distributing more than a million pieces of literature in the month leading up to Election Day and holding 56 events around the country where candidates rode the bus and talked with riders. In the absence of a national election day, they’re focusing on special races in Nebraska and South Carolina.

While Colbert Busch – yes, Stephen Colbert’s sister – did answer the Charleston transit questionnaire, her answers were less than inspiring. Her message to transit riders? “I will listen and make careful choices.” Will she fight for federal support to complete their intermodal transit center? “There are logistics to work out” but she supports “improvements to bus and rail connections.” Would she fight for a bigger share for transit at the federal level? “I see the value of improving and maintaining our roads… Transit should be part of the full infrastructure portfolio.”

Elizabeth Colbert Busch, left, holds a commanding lead over Mark Sanford, right, for Charleston's first district Congressional seat. Photo: Daily Kos

The Hungryneck Straphangers don’t make endorsements anyway, since it’s a 501(c)3. So what’s the goal, when you have candidates like these?

“Two things,” said ATU President Larry Hanley. “First of all, getting them involved in the issue, getting them to meet riders, getting them to ride a bus and understand what’s going on out there.”

Back in the day, candidates used to campaign around transit stops, but now they ignore that constituency. So, the second goal is to “familiarize candidates with the needs of transit riders,” Hanley said. “And we think we are making headway there.”

Charleston is a tourist town with unwelcoming and antiquated transit facilities, said Andrew Austin of Americans for Transit, who just spent a week with the campaign in Charleston. “The Amtrak station looks like a rusted-out, falling-down, terrible, depressing place with not very good bus connections.” The transit agency chair himself compares the station to a scene out of Bosnia.

The city has been working for years to build an intermodal transit facility to connect inter-city trains and buses to local transit and highway access, but a recent location change and other issues have slowed down progress — the “logistics” Colbert Busch said needed to be “worked out.”

Meanwhile, the city’s buses are old and decrepit, and ridership is growing. While CARTA isn’t struggling with a fiscal crisis of the dire nature being experienced by many transit agencies around the country, they’re primed for a leap in the quality and frequency of service that they don’t have the resources for. Even in the post-earmark era, a champion in Congress could help bring federal funds to Charleston’s transit and rail needs.

If you trust the most recent polling, Colbert Busch looks likely to be the victor in the May 7 contest.