CARTA, other transit systems face budget hurdles

CARTA, like other bus systems across the county, struggles with financial challenges.

The demand for increased bus service will grow along with the region’s population, but meeting it is going to be tough.

The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority is struggling so much to get by on its current $20 million budget that it recently had to turn over to the city of North Charleston a longtime plan to build an intermodal center and ask Charleston County to forgive a $7.6 million loan. The budget doesn’t include money for replacing buses in CARTA’s 122-vehicle fleet, which is one of the oldest in the nation.

Keeping CARTA a viable organization in the future will depend on bringing in more money and operating more efficiently, officials say.

CARTA has a long way to go to match ridership rates with some of the most highly rated systems in the country, according to a July 31 report from Nate Silver’s website FiveThirtyEight, which uses statistical analysis to study a variety of topics. But CARTA faces similar financial challenges, including the need to replace buses and for more money to expand service.

Jeff Burns, CARTA’s interim executive director, said its $20 million budget is composed of $7.5 million from the county’s half-cent sales tax, $6 million from federal grants, $4 million from fares and $2.5 million from grants, advertising revenue, community partnerships and other sources.

Replacing the majority of the fleet, which is made up of mostly 19-year-old buses, would cost about $40 million, Burns said. That money isn’t going to come all at once, he said. “So we’re looking at the oldest and most dilapidated to be replaced first.”

Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings, who is a member of CARTA’s board, thinks it would take at least $30 million to effectively run the buses CARTA has now and to begin a bus replacement cycle. “We can’t even think about expansion until we get the budget in a place that’s sustainable,” Seekings said.

CARTA last year hit a milestone of providing more than 5 million rides, which represented a 2.5 percent increase from 2013.

“We’re successful if you look at our ridership,” Seekings said, “but we can’t continue to be successful without expanding our budget.”

He thinks growing the budget will take the county, municipalities, businesses and others finding ways to contribute.

Fares generally cover less than 30 percent of the bus system’s budget, Seekings said. “We need to come up with 70 percent of every dollar.”

Charleston County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, who also serves on CARTA’s board, agreed that the authority’s budget is small, but the system also needs to be more accountable and efficient, she said.

The agency’s first problem is that it accumulated serious debt, she said. Charleston County Council recently had to forgive $7.6 million CARTA borrowed from the county between 2006 and 2012.

And the authority spent $10 million upgrading a site on Montague Avenue in North Charleston, where it planned to build a new intermodal center. The plan, however, was derailed by a fundamental conflict between the authority, Amtrak and CSX rail that would have cost a staggering $25 million to fix.

“They wasted millions working on the wrong site on Montague Avenue,” Condon said.

She also said the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments is working on an analysis of CARTA’s bus routes, exploring ways to make them more efficient.

“There still needs to be right-sizing of the routes,” she said. The analysis will be detailed, she said, likely allowing CARTA to cut unproductive portions instead of slashing entire routes.

“CARTA will never be self-sufficient. No system in the country is,” Condon said. “But CARTA can be more efficient.”

Butch McDuffie, transit director in Athens and Clarke County, Ga. said his system, and the system that serves the University of Georgia, are highly rated because they provide quick, efficient and professional service. But they also have some advantages.

People use public transportation because in many areas around the university and downtown it’s difficult to park, he said. And they serve 35,000 students nine months of the year who pay a student transit fee to access the system.

The Athens and Clarke County systems are rated fourth out of 290 systems in the country for ridership according to the FiveThirtyEight report. Charleston was ranked 166th.

The Athens system, along with those in Durham, N.C., and Albany, N.Y., were ranked in the top third among smaller systems — serving areas with 65,000 to 1 million residents — for their ridership in the FiveThirtyEight report. Charleston also falls in that category.

The GoDurham system in Durham ranked 21st in that report.

GoDurham spokesman Brad Schultz said he thinks the service is successful because it’s well-coordinated, and it has the support of the community, employers and business owners.

He also said Duke University provides passes for students and staff to use the system. And one of the largest employers in the area has also started offering a transit subsidy to employees.

In Upstate New York, the Albany and Schenectady area ranks 48th in the report.

Jaime Watson, spokeswoman for the Capital District Transit Authority, said the system is experiencing record ridership, something she attributes to an effective route network and outstanding service.

But both GoDurham and the Capital District Transit Authority face financial struggles.

Schultz said GoDurham’s $16 million budget doesn’t include money for bus replacement. The authority needs $12 million over the next five years to replace 15 buses and purchase 10 more for expansion.

And Watson said the Capital District Transit Authority provided a record 14 million rides in 2014, and ridership has been on the rise since 2011. But that level of service is hard to maintain,” she said. “Without additional capital and operating support from the state, it will be difficult to continue these successes.”

Condon said ridership increases also represent success and burdens for CARTA. “When we’re more successful, it costs more to run.”

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