Finances a bumpy road for CARTA Bus service has aging fleet, $6M in past-due bills

CARTA bus driver Andrew McKelvey finished first at the Bus Roadeo in the 40-foot division during statewide competition in Myrtle Beach. While ridership is up, the authority is struggling with a number of fiscal hardships.

CARTA has more riders than ever but it is delinquent on payment of millions of dollars to its primary contractor and its buses are past their prime.

Some 5 million trips on CARTA were registered in 2014. Its drivers and maintenance team have been recognized for excellence in statewide competition. Yet it owes $6 million in past-due bills to TransDev, the company that operates the bus service.

Most of what is past due, $4.7 million, is more than 30 days late. The situation has happened because of a delay in Federal Transit Administration payments to CARTA, officials said.

“CARTA’s fiscal year began in October, and President Obama didn’t sign the FTA appropriations bill until mid-December. Now CARTA’s waiting for the money to get funneled in. It’s not ideal, but it’s something the system deals with every year,” CARTA spokesman Daniel Brock said in an email.

Most of CARTA’s buses have passed what is considered their useful life at 20 years on the road. The agency’s five-year strategic plan says that just about all of its bus fleet needs replacing at a cost of nearly $40 million. Until that happens, a staff of 12 CARTA mechanics keeps about 100 vehicles rolling.

CARTA currently has $1.9 million in federal funds for new buses but it needs to come up with a 20 percent match to be able to use the money. An express bus or fixed-route bus costs about $500,000. The tab for a new trolley is $350,000, said Interim Executive Director Jeff Burns.

Charleston County provides $7 million annually for the CARTA budget, the largest share, followed by the FTA at $6 million, he said.

The vehicles in service are safe but require extensive maintenance. Parts can be hard to find. Under federal guidelines, a bus qualifies for replacement after 12 years of operation but the key is finding local matching funds.

“I have faith that we can get through this. We just want to get ahead of it before we have equipment failures,” Burns said.

“We are going to have to start climbing our way out of this. We’ve delayed (bus) replacement to continue to expand service,” he said.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said Wednesday that he will recommend to City Council that it authorize $470,000 in next year’s budget as local matching funds to replace the dozen trollies that operate downtown. The funds would be from the city’s hospitality tax revenue, he said.

“I think it’s very important. Obviously public transportation is essential,” he said.

Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page, who has served on the CARTA board and is a mass-transit advocate, said that she is open to the idea of the Town of Mount Pleasant contributing financially for new CARTA buses.

“I certainly would be willing to have the conversation. We’re going to have to help somehow,” she said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711