CARTA seeks $40M 5-year plan says funds needed to replace much of aging fleet

Mechanic Doug Mack was at work Friday on one of CARTA’s trolley fleet at the agency’s maintenance facility on Leeds Avenue.

Nearly all of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority bus fleet needs to be replaced at an estimated cost of $40 million, according to the agency’s new five-year stratetgic plan.

Until that happens, a staff of 12 CARTA mechanics keeps more than 100 vehicles rolling.

“I’d much rather have everything brand new because it really does lighten your load,” said Maintenance Manager David Bonner.

CARTA demand is increasing — about 7,000 passengers are carried daily. Riders in 2011 were up 5 percent, which means 4.3 million people took the bus.

Last year, use of the free downtown area trolley shuttle service doubled to about 80,000 monthly passengers.

All of those miles mean wear and tear.

On Friday afternoon, Bonner had a trolley in for an oil change. He talked about what his staff does to keep the Phillipine mahogany wood trim on the free shuttles looking good. Nearby, a transmission pulled from an express bus sat on the garage floor at the Leeds Avenue maintenance facility.

Bonner and his crew handle upkeep on a fleet with an average of 400,000 miles. The expected life of a bus is 600,000 miles or 12 years, he said.

The fleet includes 27 buses made in 1994 by defunct-company Flxble. There are 24 other buses that served in the 1996 Olympics. The 14 trolleys that run in downtown Charleston are 13 years old, he said.

CARTA buses range from neighborhood shuttles to express routes. Finding replacement parts for the old buses can be a challenge. Veolia Transportation operates and maintains the bus system under contract with CARTA.

Bonner and his crew handle everything from basic maintenance to replacing worn-out engines. He tends to 84 “fixed-route” buses, the workhorses that trudge from stop-to-stop in the urban areas. The 40-foot buses have 1.5 miles of wiring, he said.

“They’re kind of more like a moving building than a great big car,” said CARTA Executive Director Christine Wilkinson.

Last month, the CARTA/Veolia Transportation team was recognized for winning the 2012 South Carolina Bus Maintenance Roadeo. They will compete nationally in timed events in which they are challenged to identify bus defects in the engine, the interior or the body.

Although 90 percent of new-vehicle costs are eligible for federal and state funding, $4 million in local matching funds will be still needed, the five-year-plan report said.

The Charleston area population increased 20 percent in the latest census, which could help with federal funding for new buses, Wilkinson said.

In CARTA’s current budget, $5 million is from the Federal Transit Administration, $7 million from Charleston County and $3 million from passenger fares. The agency has reported record ridership.

The primary recommendation in the new five-year plan is for CARTA to reduce its current debt and minimize its risk of future indebtedness.

“With the reduction in revenue generated from the Charleston County half-cent transportation sales tax, CARTA has been forced to rely on its line of credit as a source of immediate local funding,” the report said.

Other recommendations include reducing expenses by scaling back routes that aren’t being used as expected. In all, such a move would mean a net service reduction of 5 percent, the report aid.

William Hamilton, an attorney and mass transit advocate, was not happy with the recommendations in the report. Hamilton has advocated for more bus service east of the Cooper.

“The system continues to contract towards Charleston and North Charleston. There is no mention of quality or reliability issues for riders. It’s all purely about balancing the books by cutting service,” he said.

In 2010, CARTA@Night and Route 106 Otranto/Stall were axed and service was reduced on 20 routes. Also that year, CARTA raised fares by 16 percent.