Cash-rider decline worries CARTA Transit board tables 10-cent hike

The CARTA board meets Wednesday afternoon to review the results of a bus fare-increase analysis.

Cash customers for the area bus service are staying away in larger-than-expected numbers, prompting concerns Wednesday at a Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority board meeting.

“This is a number that I think this board must watch very carefully,” said member Patterson Smith. “It has been a cancer on our budget.”

The board tabled a 10-cent bus fare increase. Hiking bus fare by a dime would create a $150,000 increase in annual revenue based on current ridership.

But based on historical trends, the increase would cause a 4 percent decrease in ridership. If that were to happen, the increased fare would generate $144,000. Also, the cost of updates to CARTA maps and publications would be $45,000, cutting the increased revenue even further.

So far this year, CARTA has received about 5 percent less revenue than expected from customers who pay when they board the bus. Eight months into the current budget year, $1.4 million has been received from customers at the bus farebox.

CARTA has three types of cash, one-way fares ranging from $1.75 to $3. It also offers passes that can be purchased for up to 31 days. Pass revenue is slightly down but not as much as farebox revenue.

Despite the questions about declining cash customers, the CARTA board gave preliminary approval to a new budget that forecasts a $340,000 increase in riders who pay cash to board the bus in fiscal year 2013, which starts Oct. 1.

“I’m very concerned because that farebox return is not a realistic number,” Smith said.

Board Chairman Elliott Summey predicted that as the price of gas rises, more people will take the bus. He noted that CARTA plans to expand service to Summerville.

“We’re anticipating seeing a huge turnout,” he said.

Board member James Lewis protested the possibility of a fare hike and Summey agreed.

“It would be irresponsible for us to ask for a farebox increase when I’m not personally satisfied with the efficiency of our organization,” Summey said.

Smith recommended deferral of the 2013 budget until the farebox revenue issue could be explored further.

After Wednesday’s preliminary unanimous vote, CARTA’s new budget goes to more than a half-dozen governments for their review.

CARTA Executive Director Christine Wilkinson said about 30 percent of customers pay when they board the buses. Raising the fare 10 cents could push more people to buy passes, she said.

Despite the revenue problems, CARTA riders are up about 13 percent over last year.

The riders include the College of Charleston shuttle and the Medical University of South Carolina service as well as a free downtown trolley service subsidized with the hospitality taxes. Last year, CARTA carried more than 4 million passengers.