[image-1] Earlier this month, Charleston County voters narrowly passed a new half-cent sales tax plan that could mean big things for mass transit in the Lowcountry. With approximately one-third of the $2.1 billion to be raised by the referendum said to be going toward public transportation, CARTA Board of Directors chairman and Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings sees this as the first major commitment to mass transit in the history of the area.

“We cannot pave our way out of the challenges of transportation in the Lowcountry,” says Seekings, who already has an idea of how this new funding should be used.

[image-2]The first priority for CARTA will be to replace and upgrade the system’s aging fleet, which is one of the oldest of its size in the nation, with an average vehicle age of 13 years. Next, Seekings says CARTA will focus on improving the quality of service for customers, which would include modernizing stops and shelters, but there is also hope that the area will see the creation of its first rapid-transit bus line.

$250 million generated by the half-cent sales tax is planned to serve as the local funding match for a proposed bus rapid transit line along Rivers Avenue. In an effort to improve mobility along the I-26 corridor, a partnership between the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, CARTA, TriCounty Link, the S.C. Department of Transportation, and the Federal Transit Administration, presented a plan for a 23-mile route that would operate like a conventional rail line, running along semi-exclusive bus lanes that stretch from Summerville, through North Charleston, to a transit hub downtown on the Charleston peninsula. For Seekings, the bus rapid transit project would be the start of a long-term plan that could eventually be upgraded to incorporate light-rail transit.

“We’re taxing ourselves. We should be respectful of that. This money should be used for a project that has lasting utility for the area,” says Seekings.

But the sales-tax referendum has not been free from criticism, drawing opposition from groups such as the Coastal Conservation League, who questioned the lack of transparency shown by some county leaders and issued a statement saying,

“Unfortunately, it has become painfully clear that County Council has lost our trust to handle $2.1 billion worth of taxpayer’s money.”

Seekings is quick to point out the lack of faith in leadership that led many voters to be skeptical of the referendum. As far as CARTA’s concerned, the chairman says the organization will work to determine the mechanics of how the new tax money will be used and present a long-range capital funds plan to the public.

Speaking to all those concerned with how the money is allocated, Seekings says, “Keep an eye on it, and make sure we do our jobs.”