Grant program looks to make it easier to take the bus to work in South Carolina

April 12, 2017 GMT

South Carolina is looking for a few ideas on how to make public transit a better commuting option for workers.

The state Department of Employment and Workforce says it will award grants later this year for projects that make it easier for people to get to their jobs or classes.

The $600,000 program seeks to attack a problem that has long tripped up poor workers and job seekers. In a state where almost everyone drives to work, not having a car can be an almost insurmountable barrier to employment.

The agency says it will give out six grants to workforce development groups across the state. They’ll underwrite transit expansion projects specifically targeting workers, like adding service on evenings and weekends or offering rides to job training classes.

“Finding people a job is only half the battle,” agency director Cheryl Stanton said in a statement. “We also need to make sure that reliable transportation is available to take them to their job and training sites.”

The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, which runs the tri-county area’s workforce board, plans to apply for funding under the program, spokesman Sebastian Hale said. But the group hasn’t yet decided what project it will submit.

The push comes at a moment when South Carolina employers say they’re having trouble finding workers and the state’s jobless rate is hovering close to its lowest point in 16 years.

The problem of limited transit access is hardly a new problem in the state. A 2004 study of South Carolinians receiving benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare program, for instance, found that nearly a third had had trouble finding a job or getting to work because of transportation.

And the state isn’t much less car-centric now than it was then.

More than 90 percent of workers take a car to work, census data show, and most of them drive alone. Only a tiny fraction — 0.6 percent — take the bus: That’s only about 12,000 commuters out of more than 2 million.

That’s the product of the sort of urban sprawl that’s common across the South, according to the Brookings Institution, which studied transit systems in 2011. Younger cities out West tend to have been more meticulous in their planning, the think tank says, and in the Northeast and Midwest, big cities were built up before cars were commonplace.

That means jobs are often scattered far from where workers live and hard to reach by transit, if they can be reached at all.

In all three of the state’s biggest metro areas — Charleston, Columbia and Greenville — Brookings found that if the typical worker took a 90-minute bus ride, they could reach less than a third of the jobs in their area.

“There are good workers out there, that businesses need, who are unable to work because they lack reliable transportation,” Mikee Johnson, the chairman of the state Workforce Development Board, said in a statement. “We need to remove this barrier to employment so those who seek employment and job training can access it.”