Taxpayers could pay the fare for Midlands bus system

COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) - Richland County leaders and the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce are talking taxes to help save the region's cash-strapped bus system.

At a joint meeting Wednesday, a penny sales proposal was pushed as a possible permanent source of funding for the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority.

Richland County voters shot down a similar proposal in November 2010.

"Once the community realizes the significant importance of our need for transportation in our community, I think there will be support," said Richland County councilman Paul Livingston.

The previous penny sales tax referendum was narrowly defeated by just several hundred votes and faced stiff opposition from a group of residents known as Citizens Against the Tax Increase, or CATI.

"They're attempting to do the same identical plan that they had last time," said Michael Letts of CATI. "A smaller version, perhaps."

Letts strongly opposed the measure two years ago, and is even more against it now. He argues both city and county governments have millions of dollars in new revenue generated by increased property taxes, franchise fees, and water and sewer rates that could cover the cost of the bus system.

"They are determined to grow government and as long as that mindset prevails they're going to continue to do everything possible to put this on the ballot," said Letts.

Letts understands the importance of having a viable bus system that can reliably transport countless residents from various local industries to and from work every day, but disagrees with local leaders on how to pay for it.

A local group called Save our Buses also has its doubts about the tax proposal being explored by local leaders.

"How much of the money will go for public transit? That's the key," said Bob Liming, chairman of Save our Buses. "You could put a tax out there but if only 10 percent of that goes (to it) than it's not going to help the bus system."

Just a third of the penny would have gone to buses in the 2010 proposal, with the rest going to transportation and road improvements and greenspace initiatives in the Midlands over a two-decade period.

The plan would be similar this time around, with officials still looking to pay for long-range transportation improvements with money generated by the tax, but over a shorter period of time.

The plan does not appear to be fully fleshed out at this point. Richland County council has set up a committee to research their needs.

"I look at it as not so much a transportation sales tax, but I think it's a transportation investment tax," said Livingston, who is the chairman of the ad-hoc committee.

Opponents question why local leaders are looking to gain support for a penny sales tax before they know all the potential projects the money generated would fund.

"This county council seems to feel like it wants to get money first and then figure out how to spend it," said Letts. "That's just absolutely backwards."