CARTA relies on half-cent sales tax revenues to keep its buses rolling, but at least one transit board member thinks they should pump the brakes and draw moderately from the special sales tax each year because the money apparently won't last as long as hoped.
The voter-approved sales tax should generate up to $1.3 billion over 25 years, but county budget officials say the tax is likely to max out early, about two years before that time period ends.
That concerns Dickie Schweers, a Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority board member. "I feel like what the public bought into was a 25-year funding mechanism," he said. "Perhaps it's necessary for us to adjust our figures."
About 18 percent of the half-cent money generated, or nearly $234 million, is for mass transit, which includes CARTA and the area's rural bus system, TriCounty Link. Officials have asked for more funding up front and less in later years.
But Schweers, who is also a Charleston County Councilman, said he thinks they should try to stretch out any funding for as long as possible to extend the life of the tax. "Just because the money is available, that doesn't mean you have to spend it," he added.
His comments came Wednesday when CARTA's board saw a budget preview suggesting they might want to ask County Council for $8.84 million next year, about $800,000 more than the authority got this year from the special tax.
Executive Director Howard Chapman said the amount reflects anticipated new revenue from growth in retail sales. He said the funds would help cover rising fuel costs; some service expansions; and digitization of the radio system, estimated to cost about $400,000.
But this year, council didn't even give CARTA what it had asked for — about $392,000 less than requested — because it wanted to ensure TriCounty Link got a share.
The reduced income meant CARTA had less money to set aside in a reserve fund to replace deteriorated buses and other administrative cuts were made. The transit authority intended to use $109,800 of the half-cent money to expand the popular Express service but couldn't.
The board will decide next month how much it will request from the county. Chapman said the $8.84 million figure could be tweaked, depending on how much federal funding the local transportation authority is allotted and how much money the county's budget staff recommends for CARTA.
A few board members expressed need to find more permanent funding sources at their monthly meeting.
Chairman Patterson Smith assured that "we can see light at the end of the tunnel," because he said the bus system is steadily stabilizing and will be able to start building its reserve fund soon after some loans are paid off in a few years.
But Schweers was skeptical. "You remind me of me planning my own family budget," he told Smith jokingly. "You know, it'll all work out in the long run, if I just hang on long enough. ... Sometimes, it doesn't always work out."