Bus System cuts
Midlands bus riders and areas business leaders are bracing for bus cuts this month they say are creating anxiety and will exacerbate an already tenuous economic situation for many Midlands workers.
Theres going to be all kinds of stress over this, said Lonette Carter, as she made her way home recently on 15B, one of the routes scheduled to be cut.
Carter said she has been hearing that her route which serves Forest Drive, Decker Boulevard and Faraway Drive could be cut since last year. Route 15A will now carry most service for that area, but it wont include Faraway Drive, where Carter usually picks up the bus.
I dont know what Im going to do (when) that segment is eliminated, said Carter, a certified nursing assistant who rides the bus to work.
After years of riders being brought to the brink by potential bus service cuts only to be rescued by last-minute cash infusions from some local governments riders like Carter have run out of options.
The service reductions, made by Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority officials to balance its budget, will start May 14.
Businesses with employees who rely on buses to get to work are concerned. They say a long-term funding solution, such as a proposed penny sales tax, is essential for the Midlands economy.
We have more than 200 employees who rely on the bus system, said Julian Gibbons, Palmetto Health hospitals vice president for community and governmental relations. We support whatever it takes for these folks to have public transportation. It supports the Midlands and it supports jobs.
Living within its means
While transit officials are not happy about reductions, they say they are a necessary step in right-sizing the system.
This isnt the most desirable system, said CMRTA chairman Brian DeQuincey Newman at a recent meeting on the future of buses. But this is the one thats going ... to provide core services, he said.
Newman and others with the transit authority agree a long-term, dependable funding source is still needed if the system is ever going to grow or accommodate non-fixed costs, including aging buses, gas price increases, and health insurance costs for employees.
CMRTA executive director Bob Schneider said the transit authority has worked to keep its core services by looking at lower-performing, less-efficient routes that could be eliminated or combined with others. Routes like Forest Drive/Faraway Drive, Village at Sandhill and Crosstown were targeted for elimination because of duplication of stops or areas of crossover with other routes, he said.
Other routes with fewer riders will be combined or have fewer buses running, he said. In addition, many routes will lose nighttime hours or will only run at peak times.
The reductions as they now stand are designed to affect a smaller percentage of riders than previously proposed cuts.
Those are important services, so its not to say that everything is fixed, Schneider said at the recent meeting attended by Newman and other city and county officials. Quite the contrary. Weve eliminated fat, weve cut into tissue, anything further, were in bone.
The reductions are a concern many businesses, among them Palmetto Health.
With four hospitals in Columbia and another set to open in 2013 in the Irmo area, the health network said reductions could have a negative impact on both employees and patients.
Palmetto Health, Gibbons said, is in favor of putting something on the ballot to address the issue.
It might be a penny or half penny or some other thing, but the main thing is, put it on the ballot and let the taxpayers decide. We owe it to these 200. Its impacting their livelihood and their jobs.
Columbia area hospitals arent the only employers affected by bus cuts, said Mike Brenan, chairman of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerces board of directors.
Brenan, who is also the State Group president for BB&T, said there is a general understanding among many in the business community that people moving through the city or the county is really an issue of commerce.
Because if you think about it, most people are going to a store, visiting family, going to shop or going to work, he said. If people cant get to work or to the store, that clearly is a detriment to business.
The chamber, he said, supports a penny sales tax and would be taking steps this summer to launch a public awareness campaign, similar to the one conducted in 2010. While a full penny proposal made it on the ballot that year, Richland County voters narrowly defeated it.
Richland County Council will have to decide this summer whether to put the referendum on this falls ballot.
Is there opposition out there ... sure there is, Brenan said. There are those who dont want any taxes. But I really see this as an investment in transportation, infrastructure and the future of our community.
Brenan said the chamber will be talking with the University of South Carolina, Palmetto Health, Fort Jackson and other major employers in the region to discuss support for a potential referendum this fall, because those entities do rely heavily on their employees being transported to their locations, so they get this.
Officials with BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina say the company has been a supporter of the sales tax referendum as well.
We believe its a vital part of our community and economic development of our community, said spokeswoman Patti Embry-Tautenhan.
Brenan and transit authority officials also say they will talk to employers about the possibility of instituting a voucher system.
A voucher system, Schneider said, could work as a way of offsetting current riders bus fees or provide pre-tax incentive for nonriders to consider taking the bus to work.
For Richland County to be great, we really do have to have a vibrant transit system, Brenan said.
Hard on a lot of people
Bus riders like Barbara Theilen say they are fed up with not having reliable service, even though they, too, pay into the system whether directly, through bus fares, or indirectly through taxes and economic impact.
There is not a person in this town ... that does not depend on somebody who rides the bus, she said. If youve ever been in a hospital, if youve ever eaten a hamburger, if youve ever been to a downtown office ... if you have ever done any of the things, youve been waited on by someone who rides the bus.
A retired downtown office worker, Theilen and her husband ride the bus not because they have to, she said, but because they choose to.
The buses, she said, dont always have information posted in visible areas or tell riders exactly what is being cut in a clear way further adding to rider anxiety.
When Carter, the certified nursing assistant, moved to South Carolina more than three years ago, she was surprised by the capital citys limited bus service and seemingly constant state of crisis.
Carter once lived in Chicago. There, a bus goes by every 20 minutes, she said.
Her husband, a math teacher and tutor at Benedict College, drives her to work at the Wildewood Downs retirement community in the mornings in the couples only car. Then, she catches 15B home in the afternoons, since her husband has to work around his students schedules.
But come May 14, it will be different for Carter and other bus riders, with the loss of 15B and other cuts going into effect.
Ill be able to work something out, but there are a lot of people who are not in that situation, she said. Its going to be very hard on a lot of people who have no other way to work.
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Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.