CARTA celebrating 5 million rides with free gifts Friday

CARTA employees (from left ) Maureen Kokolus, Sarah Whitt, Urvi Patel, Rainee kearney and Jeff Burns stuff envelopes with gift cards and write thank-you notes for riders on Thursday. CARTA for the first time has crossed the 5 million ridership mark.

Some lucky bus riders will get surprise gifts Friday as part of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority’s celebration for meeting its 5 million rides goal in 2014.

Jeff Burns, interim executive director, said CARTA provided 5,000,462 rides last year, which represents a 2.5 percent increase from 2013. The authority had been trying to break the 5 million mark for the past couple of years, he said, and it finally did.

Staffers have written thank-you notes to riders and will include a note and gift for one rider on each bus, he said. And they will be out at some bus stops during the day handing out thank-you notes and other gifts.

An average of 15,694 passengers rode CARTA each weekday in 2014, Burns said. Based on national transit estimates of 1.2 passengers per vehicle, CARTA eliminated as many as 12,500 car trips each day.

Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey, who also is chairman of CARTA’s board, said hitting the 5 million mark is “huge for a metropolis our size.”

People traditionally have the perception that using a CARTA bus is limited to poor people, he said. But that’s beginning to change.

One of the things prompting that change is an influx of new residents from other parts of the country who are used to using sophisticated public transportation.

And he thinks CARTA ridership will continue to grow as the area’s population increases and traffic gets worse.

Summey would like to see the service expanded for business people who want to avoid traffic. “Instead of CARTA being only for poor people, it also will be for frustrated people,” he said.

One day, there might even be Wi-Fi on buses, so riders can work during their commutes, he said. He also would like to see dedicated lanes for buses so they don’t get stuck in traffic and can move faster than cars.

CARTA officials also attributed the rider increase to the expansion of partnerships with large employers and the rollout of new services, such as the NASH Express, a $3, limited-stop route that connects the airport to downtown Charleston.

“It’s obvious that new residents and visitors expect strong public transit, and longtime residents who may not have considered transit alternatives in the past recognize that change in the region is calling for new solutions,” Burns said.

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.