Nickeled and dimed; For every $27 in cash fares, CARTA will spend $1 to count and deposit the money

In the coming year, CARTA expects to spend $100,000 counting and transporting the cash it collects in fareboxes. Buy this photo

The thing about getting paid in dimes, quarters and crumpled dollar bills is that somebody has to count that cash and make it presentable for a bank deposit.

For the Charleston Regional Area Transportation Authority, money counting is expected to consume about one of every 27 dollars collected in farebox revenue in the coming year. The transit system has budgeted $100,000 to cover the counting and transportation, by armored car, of all those coins and small bills.

"They come in to a locked vault room and count the money, three days a week," CARTA's interim executive director, Jeff Burns, said of contract recipient Dunbar Armored. "The coins are easy, the bills are a mess."

Machines can count coins, but people have to load the machines and take heavy bags of coins to a bank. Machines can also count bills, but people have to unfold and uncrumple them.

The bus system also collects payments through magnetic-strip passes, through direct payments from organizations, such as hospitals and colleges, that pay for employee bus rides, and from local governments that pay for some free services, such as Charleston's DASH route. The majority of CARTA's more than $20 million in operating revenue for the 2015 budget will come from Charleston County's half-percent sales tax, and from federal subsidies.

Cash fares account for 13.4 percent of the bus system's revenue in the upcoming budget year, but money counting is a relatively large operating expense. The $100,000 CARTA expects to spend is more than CARTA plans to spend cleaning bus shelters, and half the amount budgeted for vehicle maintenance.

"You have to carry the money, collect the money, count the money," Burns said.

Regular bus riders can save money buy purchasing passes, but for every dollar CARTA gets from passes, more than four dollars are still collected in cash.

Just three years ago, CARTA spent $56,596 on money counting, and took in less than $2.5 million in farebox revenue. In the 2015 budget, CARTA anticipates just under $2.7 million from fareboxes, but $100,000 in money counting costs.

In Greenville, the Greenlink public bus system doesn't budget any money for the counting of money, spokeswoman Kathryn Vass said.

"Our fare box intake is counted daily and deposited in the bank by supervisors and staff as part of their general duties," she said. "At this point, there is no outsourcing or additional staff required for that task."

Vass noted that CARTA is a larger bus system. Greenlink collects about $1 million in yearly fare revenue.

While CARTA has been collecting more cash each year at the farebox, the national trend in mass transit is a transition toward alternative payment methods, such as plastic swipe cards embedded with computer chips that fareboxes can read.

"In a general sense, cash is continuing to drop as a method of payment, as many are now using smart cards on buses where most cash transactions occur," said Martin Schroeder, chief technology officer at the American Public Transportation Association.

Burns said 17 CARTA buses have fareboxes that can accept smart cards, but most buses do not, and CARTA does not have a system to sell and process smart cards.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.

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