The bus and transit service for Horry County and the Grand Strand has big plans for downtown Myrtle Beach.
And those plans could produce a first for the region: Workforce housing directly adjacent to a major transit center.
Coast RTA, the transit service, could build apartments — perhaps even dormitories for J-1 visa workers — next to its new transit center, which would serve as the central hub for all the bus routes it runs.
That’s what urban planners call transit-oriented development, a type of planning that puts things like apartments and grocery stores near bus and train lines and eliminates the need to drive a car everywhere.
Transit-oriented means the development — whether it’s housing, a shopping center, a library or something else — is close enough to a bus, a train, or a bicycle path that the people visiting the development can come and go without using a car.
“You’re looking at a one-seat ride to pretty much anywhere in the city,” Brian Piascik, the head of Coast RTA, said. “It’s a win-win on a lot of different fronts.”
Here’s why this new type of development may be coming to Myrtle Beach
Coast RTA is pursuing the transit-oriented development, Piascik said, because the agency needs a new facility for bus maintenance. The agency’s current maintenance facility in downtown Conway is too small, Piascik said, and he wanted to move operations closer to the coast.
After a land deal fell through at Fantasy Harbor — FedEx will locate there instead — Piascik said he began eyeing a 23-acre piece of property in Myrtle Beach along Robert M. Grissom Parkway, between Mr. Joe White Avenue and U.S. 501.
That site would be big enough for both an expanded maintenance facility and Coast RTA’s transit hub, which currently operates out of a double-wide trailer across from City Hall.
But there was a hitch, Piascik said, because Coast RTA would need grant money from the Federal Transit Administration to buy the land and build the facility.
“FTA won’t let me buy 23 acres if I only need 14,” Piascik told Horry County Council members earlier this month.
So, he said, “we are working on a deal with developers to sort of share both the purchase of the property as well as the development of the property.”
To date, Piascik said, his conversations with developers have focused on workforce housing on several acres Coast RTA won’t need, whether that’s low-income apartments, dormitories for summer J-1 visa workers or even a commercial development like a grocery store or shopping center.
“There’s been all sorts of discussions about putting workforce housing in there, or putting another commercial development in there,” Piascik said. “It’s a really nice complimentary use.”
He said combining workforce housing and transit would solve one of Myrtle Beach’s biggest problems: Getting its tourism-industry workers to and from their jobs. That’s a problem now because homes and apartments in Myrtle Beach are expensive, and service industry jobs don’t pay nearly enough for workers to afford to live in the city.
“There’s been a pretty identified need for people who work in Myrtle Beach to be able to live in Myrtle Beach,” Piascik said. “That in itself is the biggest boon for this.”
Mark Hoeweler, the assistant executive director of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, said Coast RTA is smart to add in development to its plans now, rather than trying to retrofit a bus terminal later with housing or shopping.
Transit-oriented development, he said, can ease the burden of cars on the roads.
“In general that’s the idea: Everyone on a bus is a trip off the road,” Hoeweler said. “So the more you make transit a viable alternative for people, then you give people the opportunity or option to choose transit over driving their personal vehicle.”
New transit hub could set Coast RTA up for future expansion
If Coast RTA secures environmental permits for the land it wants to buy, and the sale goes through later this year, Piascik said the agency could begin construction by early 2023.
Currently, he said, the agency is about 90 days away from being able to “talk turkey with the owner.”
The new facility, Piascik said, would provide the agency with more garage and parking space than it needs, setting it up for future expansion. At the recent county council meeting, Piascik noted that other regions the size of the Grand Strand operate 50 to 120 buses every day. Coast RTA currently only operates 19.
Piascik said he’s currently looking for ways the agency might win additional public funding in the near future, which would provide the funding to drastically expand the transit network. A ballot referendum to funnel a 0.25% sales tax to Coast RTA is one option, but such a plan may require Columbia’s approval.
That’s because Horry County’s “local option sales tax” is capped by the state at 2%. The bus systems in both Charleston and Columbia use 0.25% of those city’s local option sales taxes.
Other options include increasing the county’s vehicle registration fee — Coast RTA currently receives $6.50 of the $50 fee drivers pay each year — but Piascik said a sales tax, which both tourists and locals pay, would be more fair.
If Columbia says yes to sales tax funding for Coast RTA, voters could see a referendum on their ballots as soon as 2026.
“I think we need to go to the state to Columbia to get more options,” Piascik said. “Could we go to 2.25% on sales tax? That wold be awesome.”
Myrtle Beach officials said they’re supportive of the project in part because they, too, have been working to increase transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in the city to make it easier for locals and tourists to get around without cars.
“The city has long favored a multi-modal approach to transportation, especially in the busy commercial/oceanfront districts,” city spokesperson Mark Kreau said in an email Thursday, noting that the city has worked to install bike lanes and has helped Coast RTA design better bus routes through the city.
“We think Coast RTA’s service would benefit from a more centralized garage/bus terminal/transfer station and have discussed this possibility with them through the years.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify that the local option sales tax is expressed as a percentage.