Money from a proposed sales tax would create a rockin bus system, even with a smaller cut of the revenues, the director of local bus service said.
But Bob Schneiders lack of a written spending plan has some bus boosters questioning what a proposed sales tax would buy especially since Richland County has reduced the money slated for public transit.
Schneider said hell have a detailed plan for voters by August or September. The document will outline such things as new routes, frequency of pickups, location of new bus shelters and sites where suburban residents could park their cars to ride a bus.
Richland County has until Aug. 15 to put a question on the ballot in November asking voters to raise the sales tax by a penny on the dollar, with proceeds going to transportation. The tax would last 20 years.
Some suggested two ballot questions, allowing voters to choose funding transit, other transportation projects, or both.
Council members, though, seem inclined to leave a penny tax as a single ballot question, as they did in 2010.
A final decision is expected July 18.
Schneider has assured county officials that the amount they want to devote to transit a figure that would more than double the bus systems annual budget is sufficient.
Can we really have a great system? Yes, said Schneider, director of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority since December. Absolutely.
Most of the revenue from a penny sales tax, 71 percent, would go to roads. Twenty-five percent would go to public transit, with 4 percent for pedestrian improvements.
But some bus and environmental advocates object to the countys plan to fund roads so heavily over transit and sidewalks, bike paths and greenways.
In 2008, a failing bus system lit the discussion of a tax referendum. But with the current breakdown, bus service seems an afterthought and roads the priority, said tax activist Don Weaver.
Two years ago, when voters came within 2,200 votes of passing a sales tax for transportation improvements, the breakdown was 61 percent for roads and 33 percent for transit, leaving 6 percent for pedestrian amenities.
Ryan Nevius, with Sustainable Midlands, said the council needs to try to increase bus spending from the current proposal. Our populations going to grow, she said. The need for clean air and efficient transportation is going to grow. Twenty years is a long time.
Roads a selling point
Some council members say voters are more likely to pay for bus service if roads are a bigger part of the package.
The elevation of the road budget would allow the county to fund all high priority projects, plus add money to pave dirt roads and fix suburban streets, said Roxanne Ancheta, the countys expert on the transportation plan.
The county used the 2010 projects plan as the starting point for this years discussions on the referendum.
But the council appears to have decided to collect the tax for 20 years instead of 25 years.
Councilwoman Val Hutchinson said increasing the proportion going to roads allowed council to avoid disagreements over what projects would get done with five fewer years of tax collections. We didnt have the time to figure out what to take out and what to keep in, she said. It couldve unraveled.
Hutchinson, who represents Northeast Richland, said the $40 million resurfacing budget was critical to the package. (The resurfacing budget in the 2010 referendum was about $19 million.)
Likewise, Councilman Kelvin Washington said the $45 million to pave dirt roads was essential to winning the support of residents in Lower Richland. (The original dirt-road budget was about $10 million.)
But Bob Liming, a rider who worked for the tax proposal in 2010, said hes uncomfortable with proposed changes to transit.
Council should follow the advice of consultants who recommended that a higher proportion of sales-tax revenues go to transit, Liming said. Youre looking at well over $1 million in studies that tell you what to do, and now theyre saying, Thats not exactly what were going to do.
But Schneider said past studies represent a bit of an overkill.
It has value, but not for where we are and where were heading, the director of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority said. Its just a new time and a new era for the organization.
The bus budget is about $9 million a year now. Under the plan on the table, it would increase to somewhere between $19 million to $21 million a year, Schneider said. Going to the larger amount the amount on the ballot in 2010 would add $3.7 million a year, he said.
Some voters have suggested splitting the sales-tax proposal in two, letting them decide whether to fund bus service or road projects or both.
But the idea doesnt appear to hold much interest for a time-strapped Richland County Council. And the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce has recommended against it, saying a split ballot could jeopardize the entire package.
We have said, You need to keep this all together so, No. 1, people are not confused, chamber director Ike McLeese said.
Washington, council chairman, said he would fight efforts to split the ballot question. We have to have a viable bus system. Aint no doubt about it, he said. But to sell it in my district, Ive got to have road projects.
If the council were to consider changing the proposal, it would take more time that some members say they dont have. They have a noon, Aug. 15, deadline to get the question on the ballot.
Washington said he is unwilling to call a special meeting to hash out the issue, meaning a majority of six council members would have to ask for a meeting.
Councilman Seth Rose said hes willing to work on that, after being contacted by two dozen constituents concerned about bus funding.
I dont want a sufficient bus system. I want a system that can grow and expand into Richland County, said Rose, who was unable to persuade the council to consider putting a question on the ballot solely to address bus funding.
As it stands, Rose said, its not clear the bus system would derive enough money from the referendum to grow.
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.