Tax hike could pay for embattled bus system

Bus riders show their support for the embattled system at Wednesday's Richland County council meeting.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WACH) - Even if you don't ride the bus in the Columbia area you could end up paying the fare for it.

As the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority looks for a permanent funding source to keep the cash-strapped system on the road, Richland County Council is floating the idea of a penny sales tax that would generate cash fto keep the buses rolling.

At a Wednesday night meeting, council members were greeted by dozens of bus riders and supporters wearing stickers that read "Put the Bus on the Ticket." If council decides to move forward with the tax proposal it would be on the November ballot. Richland County voters shot down a similar measure in November 2010.

Money generated by the sales tax would give a permanent funding source to the long-sputtering bus system, pay for road repairs, road projects and other infrastructure and transportation improvements.

Critics say in the 2010 proposal, opponents did not like the fact that money would be going to various projects and did not fully understand what initiatives the money would be funding.

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Just one-third of the penny would have gone to bus funding. How the money would be divided in the current proposal has not been determined.

"How is the money going to be allocated," said Bob Liming, executive director of Save Our Buses. "If you don't provide a sufficient amount to the transit system, you're going to perpetuate the problem you have right now. We're a capital city. We can't afford to have a mediocre bus system. It's simple. The people need it, they demand it and it's up to our elected officials to figure out how to pay for it."

Leaders say they are working on more clear cut objectives and would whittle down a list of exact projects to present to potential voters if Richland Council decides to move forward with the tax proposal. They still need to determine the period of time the tax would last as well.

On Wednesday, several council members suggested putting a time frame of 7-10 years on the potential measure, which is down from the two decades in the 2010 proposal. Council indicated that would allow residents "to earn their trust" by seeing results in a shorter period of time, at which point they could possibly opt to extend the plan.

Transit officials say, if approved, the tax would generate millions of dollars annually and would supply the CMRTA with the "consistent source of funding" they have been seeking. Right now, Richland County and Columbia officials are kicking in cash on a quarterly basis to keep the system afloat.

Avery Wells rides the bus on a nearly daily basis and hopes Richland County voters will give the measure a chance if it makes it on the ballot.

"Once they understand that you have capital improvement projects, and infrastructure projects that are part of it, then they'll realize they're going to get their piece of the pie even though they may or may not be a regular bus rider," said Wells.

Councilman Norman Jackson urged his fellow council members to explore other funding sources for the bus system and other transportation projects, pointing out that even if the penny tax proposal gets on the ballot, voters may not green light it.

If Richland County Council moves to put the "transporation tax" proposal in the hands of the voters, officials must file to put it on the ballot by mid-August.