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U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-SC

The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority would lose about a third of its operating budget under a proposal in Congress to end federal grants for public transit programs brought by U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford.

Sanford, R-S.C., late last month introduced the Highway Restoration Act of 2015, which would dedicate the entire $50 billion in the Highway Trust Fund to road and bridge projects. Now, about $10 billion, or 20 percent, of that money each year goes to public transit projects.

Sanford’s plan would phase out transit funding over the next five years. But a similar proposal currently being considered in Congress proposed by U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., would cut transit funds all at once.

If the Sanford or Massie plans ultimately are approved, CARTA would lose $6 million annually in federal funds, which make up about 30 percent of its $20 million budget.

Charleston County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, who also is a member of CARTA’s board, said she will reach out to Sanford to make sure he understands the region’s critical transit needs. “If we lost $6 million, I’m not sure CARTA would exist,” Condon said. And if the Sanford plan is approved, “I’m not sure any transit system would exist.”

Sanford said the legislation “isn’t about the legitimacy of public mass transit.” It’s about trying to ensure the sanctity of trust funds.

The Highway Trust Fund was created to pay for road construction projects from the federal gas tax, which now is 18.4 cents a gallon, Sanford stated on his website. “With more cars becoming fuel efficient and fewer people driving, that 18.4 cents is getting stretched thinner and thinner,” he stated.

“Trust funds are created with an advertised purpose, and that gets diluted over time,” he said. Buses and subways don’t pay into the Highway Trust Fund, Sanford said, and that has created a severe cash-flow strain. “If you don’t put into the pot, you shouldn’t take out of the pot.”

Sanford also said that it would be better if federal money for public transit systems came from the general fund, not trust funds. Transit systems also could bring in more money through local taxes and user fees, he said.

“But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves,” he said. The legislation is “all about trying to bring a conversation.”

Losing $6 million would be devastating to cash-strapped CARTA, said Jeff Burns, the authority’s interim executive director.

Recently CARTA had to turn over to the city of North Charleston a longtime plan to build an intermodal center and ask Charleston County to forgive a $7.6 million loan just to make ends meet. And the budget doesn’t even include money for replacing buses in CARTA’s 122-vehicle fleet, which is one of the oldest in the nation, Burns has said.

CARTA’s $20 million budget is comprised of $7.5 million from the county’s half-cent sales tax, $6 million from federal grants, $4 million from fares and $2.5 million from grants, advertising revenue, community partnerships and other sources.

Mantill Williams, director of advocacy communications for the American Public Transit Association, said many public transit systems nationwide are struggling financially, and their bus fleets are getting old. “We’re already playing catchup, trying to bring aging systems into good repair,” he said. “This is not the time to propose something like this.”

William Hamilton, a member of Hungryneck Straphangers, an East Cooper transit advocacy group, said cuts to CARTA’s budget will hurt the region’s economy. “The smart young people we need to rev up our economy are not going to stay here without a strong transit system.”

Burns said a recent study CARTA conducted found that 60 percent of passengers were going to or returning from jobs. “If they didn’t have access to jobs, that would be a huge blow to our economy.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.