Gas prices drive folks to take bus

Bus patrons line up to board the 7:39 a.m. CARTA Express bus Thursday at the bus stop on Rivers Avenue near Super Kmart in North Charleston.

Chara Williams stepped out of her 1996 Mitsubishi Galant early Thursday morning and watched her husband drive off, leaving her to wait for an Express bus to arrive at the Super Kmart in North Charleston.

These days, the Ridgeville couple often carpools or she takes mass transit to work to save on gas costs. They have a 2002 Jeep Liberty, but they stopped driving their gas guzzler when pump prices hit $3 a gallon.

"That's when we said enough is enough," Williams said.

Nationally, gas prices are about $3.62 a gallon on average, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. South Carolinians are paying about $3.48 a gallon, up 34 cents from the state average recorded just a month ago.

The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority is seeing record ridership as pump prices continue to soar, largely because more penny-pinched people such as Williams are hopping aboard Express buses instead of driving to work.

Ridership counts from October through February surpassed levels from 2001, when the transit system last saw its highest ridership levels before running into financial issues and cutting services drastically.

From January to March alone, overall ridership counts rose from about 296,000 trips a month to nearly 313,000 trips a month.

The commuter-friendly Express bus service is growing in popularity, as nearly twice as many trips were recorded in February, compared with the same time a year ago when the service launched.

Williams decided to try out CARTA Express about six months ago when she and her husband ditched their SUV and bought an older-model sedan that she said is much easier on their pockets. They even canceled their insurance on the Jeep.

"I parked it," Williams said. "It will not move."

Express riders have reported saving as much as $200 a month by riding the bus instead of driving, transit officials said.

"I haven't paid for gas in, like, two and a half weeks. It's nice," said North Charleston's Elizabeth Sneed , who boarded an Express bus at Citadel Mall Wednesday. She said she saves about $100 a month by taking the bus.

Both Williams and Sneed work at the Medical University of South Carolina. The majority of Express bus riders are from the medical university or the College of Charleston. The schools buy bus passes in bulk.

Howard Chapman, executive director of the transportation authority, said the medical school is offering monthly Express bus passes to its employees for $5, paying the cost difference for the passes to free up parking spaces.

Chapman said several factors have helped boost the bus system's ridership, such as more reliability, outreach efforts in local communities and the addition of new services, such as neighborhood shuttles and CARTA Express.

"The gasoline prices certainly have an impact, as they do on us," Chapman added.

Transit officials are considering raising rates on all routes to help cover rising fuel costs. If approved, Charleston's transit authority would charge a base fare of $1.50, which is comparable with some other major Southeastern cities.

But apparently transit officials don't expect ridership to dip much from the potential new rates.

The bus system's board recently approved paying about $140,000 to buy 10 used commuter buses for the Express service. The buses would be added to existing Express routes approaching full capacity and would be used for expanding the commuter service to Summerville.

Chapman said they hope to get funding for the expansion through federal money and possibly local matches.

He said the Summerville route could be added as soon as this fall, if they secure about $240,000 to $270,000. Summerville Town Council and Dorchester County Council have declined to contribute toward the costs.