Richland County leaders kick in cash for embattled bus system

COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) - Richland County leaders have moved to continue their financial support of the region's embattled bus system.

Tuesday night, Richland County council voted to give $775,000 to the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority's operating budget. That amount comes on top of $618,000 Columbia city council kicked in for the bus system in January.

CMRTA officials say the amount should allow the bus system to operate through August, but, all parties involved are still looking for a permanent funding fix. That includes members of the public who appealed to county council to help keep the buses rolling before members made their decision.

"This is the city of Columbia, the capital city," said concerned resident Audrey Bowers. "And what do we look like by not having a bus service? That doesn't make sense."

The amount kicked in by Richland County still leaves the system several hundred thousand dollars in the hole, meaning possible route cuts are not out of the question.

"I feel that Columbia and Richland County deserve a viable bus system," said Richland County councilman Seth Rose. "We all benefit from a strong core. To a large extent our local economy depends on this, people getting to work, job creation, things of that nature."

Rose says the county has a financial responsibility, considering 31 percent of the bus system's routes are outside the Columbia city limits. Council members debated Tuesday how much of a responsibility they should have before making their final decision.

Last summer, both city and county leaders combined to allocate more than $1 million to the bus system to keep it rolling through the end of this past September.

In recent months, the CMRTA board has been overhauled to better address the long-sputtering bus system. The number of members has been cut, a new board chairman has been put in place, and a new director has been selected. That streamlining gives some leaders hope that the "wheels are in motion" to fix the system.

Richland County leaders are determined to end the string of band-aid fixes that have kept the bus system rolling. On Tuesday, council members had a heated debate about finding a permanent funding source.

In November 2010, Richland County voters narrowly shot down a penny sales tax referendum that would have funded the system. It was voted down by just several hundred votes.

"If some type of referendum is passed, then much of the financial question doesnt completely go away, but its certainly resolved," said CMRTA transit director Robert Schneider earlier this month. "Instead what we're looking to do is for cities and communities to simply say are there additional transportation needs we can meet for you."

On Tuesday, Schneider told Richland County leaders that the bus system is a $950,000 per month operation and the longer it goes without a permanent funding source the closer it comes to a complete shutdown.

Rose said he would support putting another sales tax referendum on the ballot, but, only if voters have a clear idea about what a penny sales tax would be funding. He says constituents have told him they never truly understood what the money would have supported before the 2010 vote.

That proposal would have put roughly one-third of the penny towards the bus system while the rest of the money would have supported greenway initiatives, bike trails and a host of road and and other transportation improvements in the Midlands.

Rose says the process would have to be spelled out more clearly.

"I'm always in favor of letting the community decide," said Rose. "But, at the same time I'll be using my voice on council to make sure that we're doing this in a transparent way and that we are letting the community know exactly what they're voting for. Anything short of that won't be acceptable."

Not all council members support the idea of a penny sales tax as a permanent funding fix. Columbia leaders have also recently talked about rebooting the idea of the tax as a long-term financial source for the transit system.