CARTA airport express bus

Passengers board the airport express bus to downtown Charleston Friday morning as airport and transportation officials prepare to cut the ribbon on a new bus shed outside the terminal. Dave Munday/Staff

Just in time for the holiday travel season at the state’s busiest airport, the Charleston region’s bus operator unveiled a new push to keep more cars off the roads.

Officials cut the ribbon on a solar-powered shelter for the express service between the airport and at the Charleston Visitor Center on the peninsula Friday. New signs have also gone up inside to direct passengers to the bus stop at the far end of the terminal, past the line of waiting taxis and shuttles outside the baggage claim area and across from the fleet of rental cars.

"A bus shelter may not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things," Mike Seekings, a city councilman and chairman of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority, or CARTA, said before the ribbon cutting. "But it shows ... that we are committed to making sure that the Charleston community is ahead of the game in public transportation. And what better place to start than the intersection of where people come into our community.”

The airport is on track to handle a record-breaking 4 million passengers this year, which includes arrivals and departures. Traffic was up 24 percent in October over last year. Charleston's increasing stature as a destination city has prompted efforts reduce traffic around the city, including mass transit.

"This is not the end of the conversation," Seekings said.

The Charleston County Aviation Authority paid for the shed and new signage.

The bus costs $3.50 and runs hourly from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays. CARTA plans to replace it with a shuttle that can handle more luggage next year.

Once downtown, travelers can use the free downtown shuttle buses, called DASH, to get around the peninsula.

CARTA started its airport express route in February 2014. The bus carried 1,906 riders in October, up from 1,300 a year earlier, according to CARTA’s count. That includes riders coming from downtown Charleston or North Charleston toward the airport. The buses also stop at Tanger Outlets and the nearby North Charleston Visitors Center.

The airport upgrade is part of a bigger plan to improve and expand the transportation system.

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One inconvenience — the requirement that drivers can only accept exact change — will go away with the activation of a system that can accept payments from bank cards or smartphone. CARTA spent a slightly more than  $1 million on 76 electronic fare boxes that are awaiting activation.

A $75,000 phone app will include real-time bus location and trip planning as well as payment with a phone scan. CARTA is also spending $58,000 to make its website more helpful.

About two dozen other buses are also scheduled to be replaced this year, totaling almost $11 million. Besides the new perforated steel shelter at the airport, 60 others are set to be installed throughout the system, for about $25,000 each, as well as 45 ADA-compliant benches that total $50,000.

Work has started on a $16.5 million transportation center for buses, trains and taxis at the Amtrak station in North Charleston.

CARTA is funded through local, state and federal sources, as well as fares and advertising revenue.

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.