Transit agency gets grant 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.

GRACE BEAHM

Up to 14 of the 36 green-and-tan buses that make up the backbone of the area's aging mass transit fleet will be replaced using funds from a $6.4 million federal grant awarded to the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority.

CARTA received $4.75 million for new buses, $1 million for improvements to its 26-year-old bus maintenance facility on Leeds Avenue and $725,000 for 25 bus stop shelters, officials said Wednesday.

The 13-year-old buses in the CARTA fixed-route fleet have from 400,000 to 600,000 stop-and-go miles on them. Improved fuel economy, less pollution from exhaust emissions and more reliable transportation for workers are anticipated benefits of replacing the buses.

The Federal Transit Administration approved the funds made available through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The number of buses that CARTA purchases will depend on how the bidding process goes. The new buses could be in service in about a year, but it may be longer.

CARTA board members discussed receipt of the grant during a meeting Wednesday at the Charleston Museum. At its February meeting, the board was divided on whether to apply for the funds to upgrade CARTA bus service or to build the Charleston Regional Intermodal Transportation Center. The 30-acre transportation hub would be able to serve Amtrak, buses, area taxis and shuttle services to and from Charleston International Airport.

Supporters of the new buses argued that they would mean more reliable transportation for workers. Those in favor of the transportation center said it could mean hundreds of construction jobs. By a 10-8 majority, the board agreed in February to apply to buy the buses rather than use the funds for the center.

In other developments, the CARTA board discussed the feasibility of offering an annual pass for its buses. CARTA staff surveyed 171 public transit agencies and determined that only 16 of them offered an annual pass ranging in price from $75 in Blacksburg, Va., to $828 in Minneapolis, Minn. CARTA Transit Administrator Christine Wilkinson said the annual pass program here would range from $450 to $912 depending on the level of service purchased. Currently, CARTA offers a 31-day pass for $37.50 and an Express all-access pass for $76 per month. CARTA does not offer refunds for lost passes, and Wilkinson expressed concern about that policy in relation to the annual pass.

Board member and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey suggested contacting agencies and companies that buy monthly passes for employees to see if they would be interested in an annual pass program. The board agreed, and directed its staff to research the issue.

Bus service will be free today on all CARTA routes as part of the agency's summer effort to get people to try mass transit. And CARTA will give away a limited number of electric fans, back packs, lunch bags, water bottles and other items at its bus stops at Meeting and Mary streets and Cosgrove and Rivers avenues.

The free rides and giveaways are for the authority's "Dump The Pump" promotion, which encourages bus ridership to save gas costs and reduce traffic. Typically, about 12,000 people ride CARTA daily. More than 18,000 riders participated in "Dump The Pump" day last year.

SHELTERING RIDERS

Bus stops slated for new shelters:

S.C. Highways 61 and 7 (Shell Station); Super Kmart in North Charleston; Rivers Avenue and Mall Drive (near Exxon); Dorchester and Leeds avenues (Bi-Lo); Ashley Phosphate and Rivers avenues; King Street across from Food Lion; Rivers Avenue across from Trident Tech; Kmart on Savannah Highway; Citgo on Dorchester Road (across from Huddle House); Northwoods Mall (Rivers Avenue); Trident One Stop; Social Security Administration (Tobias Gadsden); James Island across from Piggly Wiggly; Rivers and McMillan avenues (in front of McDonald's); Meeting Street Road and Pittsburg Avenue; HealthSouth; Rivers and Durant avenues; Noisette (Turnbull Avenue); Ashley Phosphate and Dorchester roads; Lockwood Drive in front of police station; Savannah Highway in front of Hendrick Volvo; Columbus and America streets; Dorchester and Montague avenues; U.S. Highway 17 between Parish Road and Wesley Drive; and Huger Street and Morrison Drive.