Charleston, S.C., transportation system lags city growth, business owner says

Founded in 1670, Charleston, S.C., has cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages and pastel pre-Civil-War-era houses in the French Quarter and Battery areas.

It is the principal city in the Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville metropolitan statistical area and -- along with Mount Pleasant and other incorporated and unincorporated areas -- forms the Charleston-North Charleston Urban Area.

The ongoing growth of the Charleston-North Charleston Urban Area is putting pressure on one of the nation’s oldest cities, business owner Richard Krenmayer, who said traffic has become horrendous, said.

“Traffic has always been around, but now it keeps getting more intense," Krenmayer told TI Daily News.  "Getting to work on time is becoming a struggle. You have to learn to adapt on a daily basis. That’s what we’ve seen from a business perspective."

Krenmayer is chairman and CEO of Stasmayer Inc., a managed IT service provider that he co-founded in 2003 with partner David Stasaitis, the company’s president. The company is a member of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Stasmayer Inc.’s location in North Charleston puts it smack dab in the middle of an area considered to be the state’s fastest-growing municipality.

Charleston, in fact, has become a prime location for information-technology jobs and corporations, experiencing the highest growth in this sector during 2011-12 due in large part to the Charleston Digital Corridor. In 2013, the Milken Institute ranked the Charleston region the ninth-best-performing economy in the U.S. due in large part to the growing IT sector.

With more growth expected, Krenmayer is concerned that local business owners and companies face challenges that need to be addressed now.

“I can see that the percentage of time being spent on the roads is really going to affect the area over time," Krenmayer said. "I think we’re heading into a situation where we’ll be like a lot of these other metro areas, where we’ll see that it’s really hard to implement changes to public transit, and living on the road an eighth or a sixth of your time is going to become the norm. This is a quality-of-life issue and an environmental issue that we need to get fixed. We’re going to start turning people away if we don’t have a good road system,” Krenmayer said.

With upwards of 725,000 people living in the metro area, commuting happens mainly on Interstate 26, which begins in downtown Charleston and connects the city to North Charleston, the Charleston International Airport, Interstate 95 and Columbia. The Mark Clark Expressway, also known as Interstate 526, is the bypass around the city that begins and ends at U.S. Highway 17, which travels east-west through Charleston and Mount Pleasant.

Krenmayer and Stasaitis actually relocated Stasmayer Inc. several times around the urban area during the last decade, searching for better commuting options that would benefit employees.

“I don’t want it to get to the point where I can’t hire people living in certain parts of the metro area because they can’t get to me, but the chokehold still exists," Krenmayer said. "I don’t really think that the long-range planning has been sufficient."

Krenmayer said the area's ground, soil, makeup and surface make it virtually impossible to make underground public transportation work and said it’s a unique challenge that’s hard to tackle.

Likewise, the city’s age also has contributed to the current commuter challenges.

“Growing vertically is a great idea, but we don’t have the … infrastructure to handle those types of denser buildings,” Krenmayer said.

Krenmayer shared several possible solutions, including finishing the I-526 loop, using exclusive commuter vehicles, constructing a monorail or revitalizing the old rails into a new train system.

While acknowledging that some of his ideas may be “pie-in-the-sky” solutions, Krenmayer said it would be helpful to determine the feasibility of such options.

“I know it’s controversial, but maybe one of these ideas would get congestion off the highways,” Krenmayer said. “There really are a lot of people here who just don’t want to see things change around here. Charleston is a very charming place, and I totally understand why no one wants it to change."

Krenmayer said there's much to be learned from cities that have adapted to explosive growth, such as Austin and Atlanta.

“We need to learn from the mistakes of other metro areas, or else we’re going to be in a situation where, 10 to 20 years from now, our kids are going to be saying, ‘What the hell were they thinking?’”