In order to pay down debts, some board members of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority are calling for a 5-percent reduction in service costs in the coming fiscal year. The plan was announced at a board meeting Wednesday during a presentation of the agency’s updated five-year plan. The non-binding plan did not recommend any specific places where cuts should be made.

CARTA’s debts have been a problem since the county-wide board took control of the then-ailing bus system previously run by SCE&G in 1997. The agency is $3 million in debt on its lines of credit, and it is also three months behind on its invoices to Veolia, the company that maintains and staffs CARTA’s buses. The Veolia debt amounts to about another $3 million by CARTA Executive Director Christine Wilkinson’s estimate.

Board member Mike Seekings, who helped write the plan, says this level of debt is not unusual for the agency, but it needs to be paid off. Veolia understands that “we have some limitations on our abilities to pay,” he says, “but the assurance is that they will get paid enough for them to continue on with their services.” Part of the delay has to do with the fact that Congress is behind on appropriating Federal Transit Administration funds for CARTA. Federal grants account for about 30 percent of CARTA’s revenue under the budget for Fiscal Year 2013, which will begin in October. The largest single revenue source is the Charleston County sales tax, which provides 39 percent of the revenue.

Some board members argued that the 5-percent reduction amounted to an effort to merely maintain the status quo when the bus system should be expanding and making itself a more viable option for commuters. Attorney William Hamilton, a close observer of CARTA goings-on who also directs the advocacy and education group East Cooper CARTA Riders, says the five-year plan is “not a plan that meets the future.”

“This plan doesn’t show any effort to get more people on board, any effort to improve the operation, or any plans to use the proven methods to improve effectiveness that we’ve been using on the ground east of Cooper for the last year,” Hamilton says. His group has been doing bus-education outreach events in Mt. Pleasant, including at Moultrie Middle School and East Cooper Medical Center.

CARTA has had a strong year in terms of attracting new riders, and March’s ridership numbers were up 13 percent from March of the previous year, but fares and passes only generate about 20 percent of the agency’s revenue. Certain routes still present practical barriers for people who are trying to rely less on personal vehicles. A bus trip from Northwoods Mall to the downtown public library, for instance, takes an hour and a half, compared to 20 minutes by car.

Veolia, meanwhile, is still in contract negotiations with members of the local Amalgamated Transit Union chapter, which represents over three-quarters of the CARTA bus drivers. Since the bus drivers are employed by Veolia, CARTA is not involved in the negotiations. ATU members voted in January to authorize a strike if they do not get concessions from Veolia on matters including overtime hours, compensation for attending meetings, and sick days. Negotiations have been ongoing since April 4, and no strike has been called yet.