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Free DASH Ė Not Original and Not Free

Lee Walton

It has taken over a decade and a half for an idea that had its genesis in Portland, Oregon to become reality in downtown Charleston, but the current recession has made even the Riley Administrations reconsider all possible ways to sustain downtown tourism and commercial revitalization efforts. When first proposed by former Council Member Shirley several years ago after a council fact-finding trip to the West Coast, Mayor Riley, the majority of his handpicked city council and his budget department gurus scoffed at Portlandís novel pro-business concept to offer free inter-city transit service to regional shoppers and tourists visiting Portlandís central business district. That fine bastion of west coast progressive ideology had discovered that, if it collaborated and offered discounted parking and free central shopping district transit service to all comers, its revitalized center city business district and city would both benefit.

Within a special taxing district supported by Portlandís revitalized commercial urban core, each business paid an additional property tax to fund free transit service that enticed shoppers from the greater Portland metropolitan area to shop, dine and conduct business downtown. The concept of businesses taxing themselves to increase clientele worked in Portland and became a model for other progressive cities to emulate decades ago.

The primary difference between Portland and Charleston is the method of funding for free downtown business district transit service. In Portland, commercial property owners within their downtown business revitalization district pay a special tax to support their free transit service. In Charleston, as is the case with most other public-private sector ďdealsĒ, thereís always covert political intrigue and ulterior motives benefiting a select few at the core of the endeavor, albeit with taxpayers stuck with the tab.

Most Charlestonians who are not blind and who can count of the fingers of one hand know that CARTAís DASH service has been a dismal failure and a constant drain on local, state and federal tax funding. More often than not, the lonely, albeit well paid union driver is the only occupant in these quaint little buses that mournfully sit idle at the SC Aquarium and other stops in wishful anticipation of patrons. In some perverted sense, providing free transit service to all comers may be a merciful answer to the unpardonable waste of public funds squandered for years by these most uneconomical of Chapmanís CARTA follies. Better that someone than no one should benefit from the wasted fuel and related operating costs consumed by these long orphaned vehicles.

The sad reality is that in Charleston, city tax payers will continue to pay the lionís share, $360,000 annually, to subsidize the free three DASH routes that will now primarily shuttle cruise ship tourist throughout the Peninsula. If the Ports Authority and the local business community are the primary beneficiaries of a free DASH system, let them fund it all. Portland has the right idea; if its free downtown transit system is good enough to copy, then copy its funding mechanism as well.

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