CARTA moves to buy buses

metro -- A Carta bus turns on to King Street traveling north Friday March 19, 2004. (GRACE BEAHM/STAFF) Published Caption 6/4/05: CARTA drivers are deciding whether to go on strike for higher salaries. Published Date 1/6/2009: CARTA had a healthy increase in ridership in 2008, demonstrating the bus system is growing and improving.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley won out over North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey on Thursday in a battle to determine the way $6.5 million in federal stimulus money for transportation projects would be used.

Riley wanted the money used primarily to replace high-maintenance Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority buses that are more than 10 years old so that workers have more reliable transportation. Summey sought funds for a new passenger bus and train terminal because the dismal Amtrak and Greyhound stations create a bad first impression of the Lowcountry.

Building the new terminal would mean hundreds of construction jobs during a recession, he said.

"The economy today has not had a negative impact on CARTA. Our ridership is up," Summey said.

"The basic guts of what we do is to have buses that are well-maintained and get people to and from work," Riley said.

In the end, the CARTA board voted with Riley in its second and final ballot on the issue. However, the key vote came earlier on a motion by Summey, when the board voted 10-8 against reconsidering its first ballot in February in favor of buying the buses.

CARTA will apply for the funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The $4.75 million for up to 15 new buses is part of nearly $6.48 million that has been designated for CARTA through the stimulus legislation. However, before the agency receives the money, it must get approval from the Federal Transit Administration for its intended use of the funds.

The buses designated for replacement have between 400,000 and 600,000 miles on them.

As part of the application, the board also will seeek $1 million for improvements to its 26-year-old bus maintenance facility on Leeds Avenue and $725,000 for 25 sheltered bus stops.

Both mayors are CARTA board members. Summey had suggested that the board submit twin applications for the same pot of money. The CARTA staff has the bus application ready to go and was waiting for final approval from the board before submitting it. A transportation center application would require an environmental assessment to identify wetlands, and that could present a problem with meeting application deadlines, officials said.

Some board members said submitting two applications would send a mixed message to federal officials, and that the Lowcountry might risk missing out on the funds altogether. Summey said the application for the transportation center could be pulled if it became apparent that the bus funding was more likely to succeed.

After the vote in favor of the bus purchase, Riley moved that the CARTA staff work to get funding for the new bus and train terminal.

The development of the Intermodal Transportation Center has been one of CARTA's ongoing projects since 1999. The 30-acre transportation hub would be able to serve Amtrak, buses, area taxis and shuttle services to and from Charleston International Airport. CARTA staff members have been exploring whether $5 million in federal funds designated for the FUTREX monorail project could be re-allocated for the transportation center.