Fund buses now, consider all options for later

November 7, 2010 

SUPPORTERS OF a sales tax increase to keep buses operating and pay for other transportation projects see the measure’s demise by the slimmest of margins as a missed opportunity.

They came so close to getting funding for a plan that would not only support the bus system but also provide money to improve roads and build sidewalks, bike paths and other projects, which they argued would improve our community’s appeal to companies and individuals looking to relocate, boost current residents’ quality of life and jumpstart the local economy. Not surprisingly, they’re already proposing another vote in 2012, declaring they will work harder to win the needed support; the ballot measure failed by just more than 2,000 votes out of more than 100,000 cast.

But while supporters are looking two years ahead, Richland County Council has a much more pressing matter it must tend to: keeping the buses rolling now. With local funding projected to run out by June, County Council must not delay in finding money to keep the buses operating. People who depend on the system to take them to work, doctor’s appointments and shopping shouldn’t be left guessing.

Some local leaders have considered embracing the troubling strategy of allowing the bus system to be drastically cut or shut down following voters’ rejection. They hope voters would respond as those in Charleston did and approve the tax increase the second time around after observing the harm that can come from a shut down.

That’s no way to govern. That’s playing Russian roulette with people’s lives and livelihoods.

County Council must extend the transportation fee — now $10 on private vehicles and $15 on commercial ones — that it has used to fund the buses the past few years. The council already has extended the fee once. And though some members are extremely hesitant about doing so again, this is an extraordinary circumstance that, quite frankly, the council should have anticipated. Officials’ refusal for years to develop a backup plan in case the tax increase was defeated was a monument to irresponsibility.

We long have noted that the vehicle fee, while not popular and certainly not an ideal funding mechanism, is the only proven one available for the buses — even long term. But some officials insist that it would have to be raised to an unacceptably high level to provide permanent funding. While it certainly would have to be increased, we still haven’t been convinced it would have to be raised to an unconscionable level.

Whether that’s the permanent solution or not, it’s a no-brainer for County Council to use the fee to stabilize the system for now. Only then can it focus on finding permanent funding.

While we understand supporters’ zeal to give the sales tax increase another try, we would remind everyone that the penny tax increase was merely the least bad option available. We urge county officials and community leaders to come together and take another look at all possible options — and get serious about trying to convince the Legislature to give local governments more, and better, options.

Tuesday’s vote shows that this community is split down the middle. Regardless of how things look today, gaining approval for the penny-on-the-dollar increase as outlined may not be as easy as saying “let’s do it again” and peeling a few thousand “no” votes to the “yes” side. And even if it were a sure thing, we question whether it’s an ideal solution. Take the next two years to find or create a better solution.

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