Local leaders say penny tax could solve bus system's woes

COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) - A familiar idea about paying for the Midlands' struggling bus system is picking up steam again with local leaders.

The Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority keeps on rolling despite an uncertain funding future thanks to financial support from Columbia and Richland County leaders.

Countless residents rely on the system every day to get to and from work and appointments, but local leaders say the quick band-aid fixes that have kept the system afloat need to stop.

A possible penny sales tax to support the system could be put on the ballot for Richland County voters to decide. A similar proposal was narrowly shot down by voters in November 2010.

"The necessity of having a viable bus system is crucial to economic development," said Kelvin Washington, chairman of the Richland County Council. "Any time companies come in the first thing they ask what's your transportation? What's your infrastructure?"

Those are critical questions that need answers as officials look to grow the system and the region by attracting new employers.

"Infrastructure is key," said Columbia city councilman Brian Dequincey Newman. "Primarily, all individual bodies of government are getting together right now so we can work on one unified economic focus."

Dequincey Newman is also the chair of the CMRTA board which has been overhauled in recent months to increase efficiency. The number of board members has been cut and a new transit director put in place, in addition to the new chairman.

In the last month, both city and county leaders have given nearly $2 million to the sputtering CMRTA. That money will get keep it running until August.

Now leaders are playing a game of beat the clock to come up with a permanent funding source. Richland County council has not voted to put the penny sales tax proposal on the ballot yet, but it appears to be a strong possibility despite tight economic times.

"A lot of people are concerned about how it's going to impact people," said Washington. "But you have a lot of people who come in from out of town that's going to be contributing to that tax. It's going to be crucial for us to get that passed to sustain a bus system."

Opponents of a sales tax proposal both in 2010 and now say it's the wrong time to put a tax on residents.

Citizens Against the Tax Increase, or CATI, say increases in millage rates, property taxes and franchise fees generate millions that could be used to fund the bus system instead of putting another burden on taxpayers.

"Things are worse now than they were before. We're in a deep financial crisis situation in this country and this community," said Michael Letts of CATI. "To come back to the taxpayer and ask them for a one-cent sales tax for something for the bus transportation system, for other undesignated projects is just simply an insult."

According to the 2010 proposal, one-third of the penny would have gone directly to the bus system while the rest would have supported transportation projects in the Midlands over a twenty year period.

Letts says he has discussed the possible new proposal with local leaders. He says this new draft reduces the time frame to more than half the previous figure but adds that still isn't enough to sway him.

If the tax plan gets the go-ahead, the penny tax issue would likely appear on the November ballot.

Should local leaders ask residents to vote for a penny sales tax to support the region's bus system? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.