For a long time, CARTA has had an image problem.
A lot of people think the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority is just a government-subsidized shuttle service for the poor, and everyone knows how much love there is for that kind of stuff around here.
So the news that CARTA chose not to raise rates this week probably didn't make a big ripple. But maybe it should have.
The fact is that CARTA is on the way to becoming debt-free for the first time and it's operating — and thinking — more like a business. And it's showing signs of focusing on a broader mission. That is, to get more people riding the bus, and out of their cars.
And that's a very good thing. Because even when Joe Biden isn't in town, traffic around here stinks.
The Medical University of South Carolina has been in business with CARTA for a while now.
The hospital gives the transit authority about $750,000 a year for a few dedicated routes that run employees — or anyone else who wants to climb aboard — from North Charleston and Mount Pleasant to downtown. That may sound like a lot of money, but it's peanuts compared to the cost of building yet another parking garage monstrosity.
As a result, MUSC has cut its parking needs by 20 percent. And a lot of people are now out of the rush-hour equation. At the same time, the DASH shuttle is hauling 100,000 people a month around downtown, a program funded by the city through accommodations taxes (in other words, tourists pay). That frees up space on the road for us, and all those infernal cruise ship passengers.
So it's a win-win.
CARTA is about to start a Summerville route this summer, in hopes of taking more people off the road.
It will stop at Bosch, at Boeing and finally downtown.
Elliott Summey, the county councilman and CARTA board chairman, says that additional routes that take people from their homes to their jobs could do more for fixing Interstate 26 than the Department of Transportation ever could. Plus, if CARTA could get a dedicated lane so the buses don't have to stop for every fender-bender they might be able to adopt “Another One Rides the Bus” as their theme song.
Of course, it isn't all that easy. A few weeks ago, people protested the loss of some CARTA routes, part of its reorganization. Summey says part of CARTA's mission will remain to take transit-dependent people where they need to go — mostly the grocery store and the doctor.
But some of these routes have five riders an hour, paying about 3 percent of what it cost to the run the route. Nationwide, most routes earn 30 percent through fares.
CARTA has a tough job here. It needs to make sure folks who need a ride can get one, but it also has to operate sensibly and continue to get more people onboard, literally and figuratively.
If the bus service can do all that, it could make everyone's lives a little easier. And then maybe it will no longer have an image problem.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @BriHicks_PandC.