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More on CARTA - Summary of a discussion with Howard Chapman, executive director of CARTA

Warwick Jones, standing in for Shawn Keller who is on
military duty

Sales tax is vital to CARTA operations
Mr. Chapman acknowledges the importance of the Sales tax to the budget next year but adds the very continuation of CARTA depends on the sales tax being approved by voters in the referendum. And assuming it gets passed, there are some initiatives that are planned to improve service, though they will not be implemented before May next year

These improvements will be for:
• Park and Ride lots
• Smaller buses for residential neighborhoods
• Express routes
• Some additional North Charleston, West Ashley and James Island Routes
• Reinstitution of some DASH routes

Could DASH Routes be made profitable?
We specifically spoke about the DASH routes. There has been comment that these routes could be made profitable and more DASH buses should have been running during Spoleto. Mr. Chapman refuted any notion that these routes were profitable. The most profitable - or less loss-incurring routes - were the North Charleston - City and the King St - Citadel. The Dash routes, both those no longer operated and those presently operated, were and are not profitable.

We suggested that they could profitable be if fares were raised, or if tourists were asked to pay higher fares. Not so easy, said Mr. Chapman. When fares are raised, we lose riders. We find that a 10% increase in fares decreases rider ship by 12%. So CARTA tends to lose anyhow. We were a little surprised with this figure for we thought that tourists would not be particularly sensitive to an increase in the fare from the present $1.25 to say $2.00. Maybe they would be insensitive, says Mr. Chapman, but tourists are only one group of the users of DASH. There are a lot of aged and infirm citizens, and students who use the service and an increase for them would hurt.

What about higher fares for tourists?
Well what about higher fares for tourists only? The administration of a multiple tier fare structure was difficult, if not impossible. CARTA looked for support from many hotel owners and others geared to the tourist industry when it was considering the closure of bus routes. It got none, and a number of routes were closed. In retrospect, Mr. Chapman feels that the hotels and others regret their indifference for they are now having to pay for taxis and other transport providers to get staff to work and it may well have been cheaper to have supported CARTA.

Surely there is a way to lift the cost to tourists, we said? Well maybe we could work something out with the Visitors' Center, Mr. Chapman said, at which point the Executive session of the County Finance Committe ended and we all had to return to our seats.

Intermodal Facility (IF) to cost $19.3 million
But is the early part of our discussion, w asked about IF and Futrex. The IF is presently under construction and will cost some $19.3 million all up. The budget for 2005 contains a provision for $1.8 million, nearly of which will be financed by grant money from Federal or State sources. We professed ignorance as to the purpose of the IF and its utility. Mr. Chapman stated that the facility is to be constructed in North Charleston and its purpose will be to facilitate the transfer of passengers between the region's transport services. We gather a new Amtrak station will be constructed as well as a terminal for CARTA buses and Greyhound services. There will also be general provision for taxis and a link with the nearby airport. The latter will allow for citizens to park at the IF and be able to travel easily and comfortably to the airport.

But considering all of the above, $19.3 million seems a lot of money. Amtrak has only four trains arriving a day. And besides, we have heard few complaints about services from the airport. Sure they are not good presently, being provided largely by taxis and limousines. But a link to the IF won't change the picture much for airline patrons, in our view. Serious construction at the IF will begin when the purchase of three remaining necessary properties is finalized.

Futrex - the monorail of the future?
And this is where Futrex comes in. Somewhere in the future, there is hope that a monorail will link the airport with the IF and in the more distant future, will link the IF to the Downtown Visitor Center via I 26. It also may be able to cross the Cooper River if appended to one of the bridges.

So what is Futrex? It is a technology that came out of NASA research. It has the potential to revolutionize monorail construction and performance. We don't understand the technical aspect of it all but apparently a Futrex monorail car has a footprint width of only 6 feet and the car can turn in a space no larger that an average city intersection. The particularly good news is that it costs about $30-$35 million a mile for track construction compared with the $100 million a mile for present monorail technology.

So what's the catch?
So what's the catch? Well the system has yet to be proved. Research using quarter scale models has indicated the potential. Research now has to be performed using full scale models. And this is what the $2 million grant from the Federal Government is all about.

The technology is presently being developed by a Charleston firm and this firm is working with CARTA. According to Mr. Chapman, there has been a lot of interest in the technology from parties in the US and other parts of the world.

And why has CARTA been chosen to fund Futrex? Well this lies with the Federal Government more than anything else. It has chosen CARTA because it is a known entity in South Carolina and because the company that controls the technology is located in Charleston and operating from within the old navy base.

Be pleased that the Government is funding Futrex and the IF
Futrex is an interesting concept and if it lives up to its promise, Charleston and the nation should benefit, probably handsomely. But the IF is something different. There is no doubt that the facility will have utility, but more likely it will be well into the future when and if a monorail is constructed. But at this stage, the utility of the IF looks out of proportion to the $19.3 million cost. If it weren't for the fact the Federal and State Governments were funding it, we suspect there would be a lot of opposition from local citizens.

(The above article is based on a meeting with Mr. Chapman during a break in the County Finance Committee meeting on June 17 when the committee went into an executive session. An article on the fiscal 2005 budget of CARTA was published earlier today)

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