CARTA plans fare hikes, service cuts, to leave raises intact

'I moved where I live because the bus stops right in front of my house,' said Catherine Messer, who was heading to work Wednesday using Carta's 106 route, which was stopping at Midland Park and Stall roads in North Charleston. 'There're always people on t

Bus fares are rising because of declining revenues, but so are the salaries of the administrators who run the local transit system.

An increase of 3 percent in pay and benefits for Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority staffers was left intact Wednesday as the CARTA Finance Committee slashed nearly $40,000 from the agency administration budget.

During the committee meeting, CARTA board member Steve Bedard questioned raising salaries and benefits while requiring bus riders to pay more in the new budget year starting Oct. 1.

"You're going to push it all off on the ridership. I think it sends the wrong signal. I don't think you can shove all your pain onto the ridership and not do something administratively," Bedard said.

Bedard, who is the city of Charleston's chief financial officer, noted that the city has held the line on such expenses.

CARTA requested $1,154,022 for administration, which the Finance Committee sliced to $1,115,639 while leaving the salary and benefits increase in place. A 9 percent increase in the cost of health insurance is factored into the raises. The new budget includes $612,797 in salaries and benefits for CARTA's seven administrative staffers.

Last week, the CARTA board approved a 16 percent increase for all bus fares. The basic fare will increase from $1.50 to $1.75.

Despite record ridership, higher fares are needed because of a $1.3 million shortfall in Charleston County half-cent sales tax revenue. CARTA is facing up to a $1 million shortfall in the current budget year ending Sept. 30, officials said.

Eliminating the Otranto/Stall Route 106 and CARTA@Night is recommended to board members in a memo from CARTA Executive Director Howard Chapman. He said two more buses are needed for Route 10 Rivers Avenue to relieve overcrowding.

The Finance Committee meets again on Monday to go over the budget numbers. Once it reaches a consensus, the issue of where to cut bus service beyond Route 106 and CARTA@Night will be handed off to an ad hoc committee that will make recommendations to the full CARTA board for a final decision in September.

Route 106 Otranto Stall and CARTA@Night have the lowest ridership in the CARTA system. Last month, a combined 2,703 riders used the routes. In comparison, a Rivers Avenue route draws 85,230 riders per month and needs more buses.

Eliminating Route 106 and all Carta@Night services would save $543,000 annually. Committee members learned Wednesday that at least another $450,000 in cuts in fixed-route service will be needed to balance the budget.

Other options include changes to the Express Route 2 Mount Pleasant/West Ashley, which would save $70,000. Eliminating some Sunday bus service would reduce costs by $247,000.

In 2003, CARTA enacted an "emergency" basic fare hike from $1 to $1.25 and cut routes and hours to save $237,000 per month. At the time, CARTA was nearly $5 million in debt and running a monthly deficit of as much as $600,000. Two routes in North Charleston and Mount Pleasant with few riders were consolidated with other routes, and service on many routes was cut back 50 percent during off-peak hours.

In 2002, CARTA raised the basic fare to $1, which increased revenues by 8 percent but caused ridership to drop by 10 percent, which is expected when fares are raised.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711 or pfindlay@postandcourier.com.