CARTA’s momentum enhances region

CARTA has new management with new plans for the area.( Leroy Burnell/Staff)

The Charleston Regional Transportation Authority has undergone much change in recent months, including new board and executive leadership, and the system — which has faced existential financial challenges since its inception — is moving in the right direction.

That’s good news as regional traffic counts continue to rise, and with them a threat to the Lowcountry’s continued success.

This summer alone CARTA has made a number of positive strides. The system has:

Saved more than $500,000 through a strategic management agreement with the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments.

Held public meetings on route and fare adjustments that will optimize the system. Those moves will translate into more than $800,000 in savings and new revenue, the latter of which will be used for capital purchases, such as new buses.

Voted to expand late-night weekend service to cater to hospitality industry workers.

Brought the City of North Charleston on board to manage construction of the regional intermodal transportation center.

Received $7.6 million in debt forgiveness from Charleston County.

Generated more than $1.2 million in advertising revenue over the past two years, following a policy change restricting such efforts.

CARTA still faces fiscal challenges, of course, particularly in terms of revenue for both operating and equipment costs.

System staff and the board of directors are acutely aware of these issues and are working hard to address them — through grants, public-private partnerships and other avenues — as evidenced by the positive steps listed above. But be certain: more progress, and some tough decisions, that will help optimize the system lie ahead.

Still, the positives and increasing importance of public transportation in our region are undeniable.

Public transit helps preserve our infrastructure, removes thousands of cars from traffic each day and connects workers to jobs when many of those employees have no other means of transportation.

Simply stated, CARTA keeps our economy moving. Our growing list of partners, featuring numerous major employers, recognizes as much. That list includes Boeing South Carolina, MUSC, Verizon, Tanger Outlets, the College of Charleston, the S.C. Ports Authority and many more.

And, really, a record system ridership of more than 5 million in 2014 speaks for itself. That number, while impressive, becomes even more important when one considers that Charleston-area drivers spend 41 hours in traffic congestion and waste 3 billion gallons of gas annually. Without transit those statistics would be much, much worse.

We are well aware that CARTA is not a magic bullet for all of our traffic and infrastructure woes. But investing in it and other public transit alternatives is the quickest and most inexpensive way to begin addressing those issues.

Unfortunately, out-of-state special interests are handcuffing elected officials at the state and national levels over transportation funding. The battle cry to cut or limit transportation funds, particularly for public transit, ignores the very issues at the core of a vibrant society and a strong economy. With no funding, there will be no movement.

We must invest in our future, and that necessarily includes investment in transportation infrastructure, including public transit. The four-tires-one-passenger model is archaic and has put this region at risk of a shut- down. The time to act is now.

A stated legislative goal of one well-funded group is to entirely defund public transit in South Carolina next year. That is a woefully shortsighted objective as gridlock descends on our roadways. It should also be noted that CARTA receives only $600,000 in state funds annually, a total that should go nowhere but up. An increasing number of leaders locally and in Columbia are committed to securing more resources, and we applaud them.

Because let’s be clear: No one prospers in a traffic jam.

The next few months will be critically important for CARTA as we look to significantly update an aging fleet, seek a litany of grants, partnerships and new funding sources, and kickoff construction of the intermodal center.

We’ll also:

Learn the results and recommendations of a months’ long, comprehensive operational analysis conducted by the BCDCOG and use that information to very quickly shape future service.

Receive recommendations from the I-26ALT project, which will help identify what sort of fixed guideway would best connect downtown Charleston to Summerville.

Kick off a regional long-range transit plan.

There are more changes — some of them fundamental — in store for CARTA as we seek to serve the Lowcountry in the smartest, most efficient and best way possible.

And make no mistake — we’re aiming for world-class transit in a world-class region.

We hope you’ll join us on the ride.

Ron Mitchum is the executive director of CARTA and the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. Mike Seekings is chairman of the CARTA Board of Directors.