At the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority board meeting Wednesday, chairman Elliott Summey praised the bus service's rebound from near-dissolution over the past decade. Ridership numbers are up, with the total for 2011 expected to come in at well over 4 million. November 2011 ridership was 377,000, a 14-percent increase over November 2010.
But the service does not pay for itself — far from it, actually. In November, for example, CARTA spent $1.07 per weekday passenger and recouped just 85 cents per passenger in fare revenue. In Fiscal Year 2012, that makes for a funding gap of about $6.2 million, a gap that CARTA plans to fill with $5 million in federal grants and $1.2 million in local taxes.
Summey said Wednesday that he wants CARTA to start issuing bonds to cover costs in the next five to 10 years, but he said the agency is first going to have to step up its game to impress credit rating agencies.
"We feel it's time, for lack of a better word, for CARTA to grow up a little bit," Summey said. "But if we brought a credit rating agency in here right now, it'd be like our Capitol One card." He recommended that CARTA start a rainy-day reserve fund and work toward saving enough money to cover two months' operating costs. In recent years, savings have come from cutting routes out of the bus system and from raising the standard fare by 25 cents to $1.75. In the future, Summey said, it might mean saying no to expanding services.
Christine Wilkinson, who was promoted to executive director of CARTA on Wednesday, said she did not anticipate any more rate hikes in the near future — "Every time you raise fares, you potentially lose ridership, which could cost you," she said — but she did not rule out further route cuts, noting that the bus service reviews its route performance on a quarterly basis.
Wilkinson says route-cutting decisions are based on two standards: revenue recovery and passengers per hour. If a route isn't making up for enough costs with fares, it can still survive as long as enough people are using it — a safeguard that she says helps to protect routes in lower-income areas where people pay discounted fares. Currently, seven of the 25 routes are failing on both metrics and accordingly would be first on the chopping block in the event of future cuts: King Street/Citadel (Rte. 20), Mt. Pleasant (Rte. 40), Spruill Avenue (Rte. 101), North Beltline (Rte. 201), Orange Grove/Ashley River Road (Rte. 302), East Cooper Connector (Rte. 401), and Sullivans Island/IOP Flex (Rte. 402).
Part of Summey's proposed rainy-day fund could come from a windfall offer that the CARTA board accepted from the S.C. Department of Transportation at its Wednesday meeting. Under the arrangement, CARTA will waive its portion of the state fuel tax money that it would normally get over the next four years, a sacrifice of about $2.5 million. In return, SCDOT will give CARTA access to $5.5 million in funding over the next four years from the Federal Transit Administration. If all goes as planned, the bus system would see a funding boost of about $3 million over the next four years.
Here's how the agreement works: Currently, the federal government sets aside grants for public transit programs in rural and small urban areas. But in South Carolina, those small-town programs have historically been unable to muster the matching money necessary to draw down the grants. The SCDOT plans to apply CARTA's forfeited $2.5 million toward matching for smaller programs, netting federal dollars that the state has never been able to capture before. In return, CARTA will be allowed to take a slice of the small-urban-area grant pie — even though its population would normally put it in the large-urban-area division.
"It's a matter of being able to leverage to the best of our abilities the existing financial resources we already have in front of us," says Doug Frate, SCDOT's interim deputy secretary for intermodal and freight programs. At the meeting Wednesday, he said Clemson Area Transit had also accepted a similar deal.