[image-1]In a meeting Wednesday that drew input from two mayors as well as a number of protesters, the CARTA board approved a revised short-term plan intended to reduce the overall cost of the system for future investment in the aging fleet. Under the new changes which will reduce service time by more than 18,000 hours, CARTA expects to reduce its expenses by $1.3 million. 
“What has happened is the system is just too big operationally. Every dollar you had essentially was going into operating, paying the contractor, if you will. You had virtually no money going into replacing the vehicles, replacing fair boxes,” said Ronald Mitchum, CARTA executive director. “We have 15-year-old fair boxes — not the latest and greatest technology. All of which disrupts service. … Just about everything we have is out of date.”

As of Jan. 31, CARTA currently owes transportation contractor TransDev $7,237,565. The Charleston area’s current fleet is one of the oldest of its size in the nation, with an average vehicle age of 13 years. A staff report shows that overall ridership was down by more than 23 percent in January over the previous year, but revenue was actually up by 6 percent. The current system-wide cost per passenger was reported at $2.06, compared to last year’s rate of $1.85. Mitchum attributed the decline in ridership to lower gas prices, fewer hours of operation, and increased fares, saying that a 5 percent increase in fares can be expected to cause a 3 percent drop in customers.

During public comments early in the meeting, local public transportation advocates voiced their concern that proposed route changes would lead to cuts and a “slow suicide” for the system. Chief among their complaints was a planning recommendation to create a new route — Route 401 — by splitting the existing Route 40, which services the northern part of Mt. Pleasant, and a possible cut to weekend services for a section of the town.

[image-2]“You don’t have to call them cuts to be cuts. You can send out press releases and tell the media they aren’t cuts. You can shorten bus routes and cut times, cut service, and say the routes are still there. You can call an empty suit a lawyer and send it to court, but you’ll lose your case,” said public transportation advocate William Hamilton. “Y’all have cut this system as much as you can and it remain a viable option for anyone who has to live here and depend on it. These cuts will ensure more cuts, further declines in ridership, and we’ll be back here a year from now.”

According to CARTA, 42 percent of riders surveyed use the service to travel between work and home, and 75 percent of customers said they did not have a vehicle available for their trip.

Hamilton added, “I’ll hazard a guess. The route at the north end of Mt. Pleasant will be unpopular. No one will be able to live out there that doesn’t have a car, so people will either buy a car or they will move. Ridership will fall, and voila, 12 months from now we’ll be in this room and you’ll be cutting the 401.”

After holding a series of public meetings in recent weeks to discuss the proposed changes with CARTA customers, consultants returned with a few revisions to the short-term plan. These changes included the addition of weekend service for Route 401. CARTA board chairman Mike Seekings called the final plan a major step toward improving the system, while focusing on much-needed upgrades.

“This is going to make us much more efficient. It’s going to give us some capital and operating funds to go into improvements and buying new buses. We have the oldest fleet in America. We can’t continue that,” said Seekings. “We can’t have buses with a million miles on them turning over every day. There are some people who say the fleet isn’t as important as others, but in my humble opinion, the fleet right now is our No. 1 priority — replacing that fleet and giving people safe, comfortable buses that they feel happy to be in and want to get in again and again.”

In an effort to further strengthen public transportation in the area, board member and Mt. Pleasant Town Councilman Will Haynie voiced his intentions to see what Mt. Pleasant can do to dedicate town funds to supporting public transportation. This news couldn’t have come at a better time, as CARTA’s board also learned that Boeing will possibly be pulling $300,000 of annual funding for public transportation.

“When Boeing had first got up and running, we cut a deal with them to provide some service in the north area and around the Boeing plant. I can assure you that Boeing’s going to be hearing from us,” said Seekings. “We’re going to sit down and talk to Boeing to let them know how important public transportation is for this region and the people that work at Boeing. I’m optimistic that we will be able to get them back in the fold.”