PENNY SALES TAX

Bus service could improve by January

dhinshaw@thestate.com November 9, 2012 

Monday was the first day of route cuts for the Midlands bus system. Riders, who may have not already known how they were going to be affected, were reading and inquiring of how their route would change.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — The State

Bus riders could see improvements to service as soon as January, months before Richland County shoppers begin paying an extra sales tax devoted to transportation improvements.

Bus director Bob Schneider said it’s his board who’ll call the shots, and a Wednesday board meeting will allow him to lay out alternatives on how to add night and weekend hours soon, rather than waiting until fall when the first bus funds from the tax become available.

On Tuesday, voters – many of them focused on preserving essential bus service – approved a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for $1 billion in transportation improvements. They also OK’d a funding plan allowing the county to borrow up to $450 million to get started on multiple projects early on. Loans will be repaid with sales-tax proceeds.

“The easiest thing we can do is add service at night,” Schneider said. “We had it before. We just put it back.”

Longer hours on nights and weekends potentially could start at the end of January, once a half-dozen drivers are hired and trained, Schneider said.

Brian DeQuincey Newman, a member of City Council who chairs the board of directors, underscored the message.

“Riders will not have to wait until May before they start seeing changes in service,” he said. “We’re going to push this as fast as we can.”

Schneider won’t replicate the system he was forced to shrink in May because of budget cuts. He’s looking to buy 25 smaller buses and identify sites for new bus stops.

He’ll schedule community meetings in the spring to talk with riders about changes to routes. Some may be extended, others revised. By the time smaller buses arrive this summer, new routes will follow.

Shoppers will begin paying the additional sales tax May 1, and Schneider said he wouldn’t expect to receive money until August. But he’s hoping his employer, Veolia Transportation, may be willing to defer billing on extra hours of service or that the county might provide a short-term loan repaid once collections begin.

County officials, meanwhile, will prepare for a road construction program by getting staff in place, appointing citizens to a watchdog committee and amending the procurement law so it can steer construction work to small, local and minority firms. The county already has hired Maryland firm Tydings & Rosenberg to work on amendments.

“There’s got to be a ramp-up period to put management in place, get an understanding of how these projects roll out,” council Chairman Kelvin Washington said Thursday.

But he agreed with the county’s project manager on the sales-tax, Roxanne Ancheta, that already-designed projects would probably rise to the top of the construction list. That means Hard Scrabble Road in Northeast Richland and Leesburg Road southeast of town, both designed by the state Department of Transportation.

Richland Councilman Paul Livingston, who served as the county’s political point man on the campaign, said he’d like local governments to move quickly to recruit and appoint a citizen advisory committee to help guide the projects.

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