Buses must be priority of sales tax

July 1, 2012 

ANYONE WHO expected Richland County Council to adopt a more acceptable plan for a transportation sales tax that would meet the critical funding needs of the public bus system and pass muster with voters the second time around was disappointed.

The measure the council is poised to put on the November ballot is not vastly different from the one voters narrowly defeated in 2010. It once again asks for a penny-on-the-dollar increase to pay for the bus system as well as roads, sidewalks and other projects. The council, which forged the new proposal with the guidance of a transportation committee comprised of local officials, business people and others, has reduced the duration of the tax from 25 to 20 years and lowered the projected revenue from just more than $1 billion to just below that. Those changes aren’t likely to be enough to make a difference for many who opposed the measure last time.

Worse, there is one change that could cause some voters to switch sides — and vote against the proposal. That’s the mind-boggling decision to reduce the percentage — and thus the overall dollar amount — of the revenue that would fund the bus system. Last time, the bus system was set to receive a third of the proceeds; that has been reduced to 25 percent.

This is incomprehensible, when the only reason this community is even entertaining the notion of raising the sales tax is to fund the woefully inadequate, financially strapped bus system.

Once again, we don’t believe the already-too-high sales tax should be increased; it’s already 9 cents on the dollar on some items in the county. Instead, Columbia and Richland should use the current utility franchise and vehicle fees to fund buses long term.

But if leaders insist on pursuing a sales tax increase, council members should ditch the extraneous projects and ask for only enough to build a vibrant regional transit system that helps spur the economy, combat pollution and battle congestion.

While some of the extra projects would be nice to have — and even helpful — increasing the volatile sales tax further burdens those citizens who can least afford to pay the higher levy.

There is no reason to ask for more than what is required to meet the real need — funding for the bus system.

The way this latest proposal reallocates revenue, stripping a significant amount from the bus system, it appears that improving the transit system has become less the focus.

That’s unacceptable. At the very least, County Council should restore the portion of proceeds that would benefit the bus system to 33 percent when it gives final consideration to the referendum this month.

We reluctantly supported the 2010 referendum because of overwhelming support from business leaders and because local and state officials left us with few other options for funding the buses. But it’s beginning to feel like there is an agenda that supersedes the bus system. That doesn’t make us comfortable, and it is likely not to sit well with a number of voters.

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