by Sharon Purvis, Ten at the Top

Last October, Ten at the Top and various stakeholders launched Connecting Our Future with a kickoff event that looked at the region’s transportation needs, where we’re going, and how best to get there.

For the past several months, those stakeholders—individuals from public, private, and civic organizations ranging from freight, logistics, and industry to education and healthcare—have been working together to create a regional vision for transportation, mobility, and connectivity in the 10 counties of the Upstate.

In March of this year, a Connecting Our Future idea exchange was convened to explore both issues and possible solutions (click here for the presentation from that forum), facilitated by consultant Stephen Stansbery of Kimley-Horn. Other team meetings have been happening regularly to keep momentum going and to allow coalition members to continue talking to one another.

On Tuesday, a Public Rollout Event was held at the TD Convention Center with a group of more than 220 stakeholders–although Ten at the Top executive director Dean Hybl says he doesn’t want the term “rollout” to give anyone the impression that there’s a finished product and the work is done. Instead, he wants to change the way we think about implementation. “What we’re trying to do is to create a culture to enable projects, encouraging people to come together to solve problems instead of completing a project,” he says.

Our Region’s Challenges

Stansbury gave an unvarnished look at the challenges facing our region that will need to be addressed in working towards sustainable mobility. Among those, one of the biggest is that we are a very auto-dependent region, with only 2% of the population using some other means than a car to get where they need to go. Geographically, there isn’t much to restrict sprawling growth—and that growth is happening quickly, with Greenville being the 3rd fastest-growing community of its size in 2015–2016. Additionally, we are a freight-heavy region, not only being in the middle of the Charlotte-Atlanta corridor, but also being home to manufacturers whose products are destined for wide distribution and export.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is that the need is outpacing resources when it comes to addressing mobility issues, which means some out-of-the-box thinking is needed from individuals and groups who may not be used to working together.

Impacts to Our Region

Representatives from three stakeholder groups—elected officials, workforce development, and energy—gave perspectives on ways that mobility issues impact us.

Terence Roberts, now serving his fourth term as mayor of Anderson, talked about the lack of funding for public transportation and how it affects low-income individuals, relating the story of seeing four people waiting in 90-degree heat for a bus with their groceries, some of which must have been perishable. And seniors who don’t drive and don’t have family to drive them may miss medical appointments, which affects healthcare. “How do we serve those individuals?” he asked.

Janice Moss, head of human resources for the staffing company redi-Group, addressed the challenges of finding and keeping qualified workers when there is a large group of untouched workers who don’t have access to transportation. Yes, we can recruit from out of state and bring workers in, but looking at the lack of public transportation to manufacturing facilities here in the Upstate would allow access to a wider group of workers who are already here—and that’s why redi-Group joined Connecting Our Future.

Clark Gillespy, senior vice president of economic development at Duke Energy, painted two pictures, one of what is, and one of what could be. The first was all too familiar: You’re sitting in your gas/diesel powered car on I-85 between Pelham Road and the 385 interchange at 6:00 in the evening, with fender benders and brake lights as far as you can see. The pollution, lost productivity, wasted fuel, insurance claims, and general frustration don’t paint a pretty picture. In his second picture, though, the gas-powered cars have been replaced by electric vehicles; tractor trailers are in their own designated lane; self-driving cars make for fewer accidents; and the air is cleaner and quieter.

Next Steps

Wrapping up the event, Leesa Owens of Michelin North America shared the story of how the world’s first automobile accident, involving one James Lambert of Ohio in 1891, spurred policymakers to start thinking about how to regulate this new technology—things like speed limits, brake lights, licenses, and safety features did not exist and needed to be created in order to keep the public safe as we plunged into the future of cars.

Keith Scott, of Electric City Transit, challenged those assembled not to leave it to transportation providers to be the only ones thinking about these issues. Solving the Upstate’s transportation issues will take years, he said, and other groups need to partner with those in transportation in order to find solutions. “Will you join us at the table?” he asked. “ And how long will you stay there?”

To take a seat at the table, visit the Connecting Our Future website and find out more about how you can be involved.