Bolton: Buses get new life

Associate EditorNovember 11, 2012 

— PUBLIC TRANSIT in Richland County — and potentially across the Midlands — is about to move from the back of the bus.

This community has suffered through minimally adequate bus service for decades. That was supposed to change when the system was transferred from SCE&G into public hands, but elected officials and community leaders failed to identify long-term funding.

The system, placed in public hands in 2002, was relegated to second-class status among public services and then forsaken for the local-option sales tax, the 2 percent hospitality tax and millions of dollars in shiny new parks.

With elected officials otherwise engaged and providing no support, leadership or vision, some members of the public looked upon the system with disdain. Some said buses existed only for poor people, and others insisted that those who rode the buses should pay high enough fares to cover the cost. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find such a model because it would be far too expensive to ride. Transit systems don’t make money, but those that are adequate and well-operated are worth their weight in gold.

We’ve never had the pleasure of seeing such a system. But with the passage of a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax, which will pump $300 million into the bus system over the next 22 years, we’re about to get a glimpse of one. The Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority will have enough money to not only enhance current riders’ experience but transform the system into one that begins to lure people out of their cars.

As crippled as it is, the current system is invaluable to people who rely on it to get to work or to the doctor’s office or the grocery store. But the Midlands now has the opportunity to build a high-quality transit system that eventually will take people to almost anywhere they want to go, whether it’s to business districts, high-employment areas or sports and entertainment venues, all the while bolstering the economy and combating congestion and pollution.

It will take a while, but we can expect smaller buses as well as sleek, clean, next-generation buses and covered, well-marked bus stops to become commonplace. Look for transit officials, whether through park and rides or some other means, to develop ways to get bus service to penetrate deeper into Lower Richland, northeast Richland, northwest Richland — and possibly even Lexington County. And that shouldn’t be all: It’s imperative that we research new modes of transit, including light rail, and develop a plan to move in that direction.

Up until now, the transit authority has merely been trying to keep the shoddy system left behind by SCE&G afloat until this community got its act together and breathed new life into it. That has now happened with the appointment of a committed transit authority board, a competent director and a dedicated funding source.

At times, it has looked like the bus system wasn’t going to make it. But each time things got dire, Richland County, Columbia or both did just enough to keep the buses rolling, barely.

Many have questioned the city’s deal with SCE&G that transferred the buses into public hands. For sure, you can debate the quality of the deal, particularly the amount of money the utility contributed, but the bus system needed to be in public hands. Transit is a public service that needs to be under government control.

The utility ran the bus system because it was legally obligated to do so when its predecessor company, Broad River Power, agreed in the late 1800s to operate trolleys in return for the exclusive right to provide electricity to Columbia.

But the longer SCE&G operated the system, the more evident it became that it was not going to grow it or make it more reliable. Nor did it have any incentive to improve it, as it claimed that it lost $7 million annually.

Don’t feel sorry for SCE&G; despite having to carry the money-losing bus system, the utility was a money-making machine. Remember, it had a monopoly on providing electricity in the city.

Even so, it tried over and over to get out of the bus business. While city leaders rebuffed the attempts early on, discussions began in earnest in the late 1990s when it appeared that the federal government was on a fast tract toward deregulating electric utilities, which could have voided SCE&G’s transit obligations.

Ultimately, a deal was struck that required the utility to pay tens of millions of dollars in cash and other considerations to help run the system. But it was clear that SCE&G’s portion would last only a few years, 10 at the most.

On Tuesday, a decade removed, Richland County voters said “yes” to providing that elusive dedicated funding, moving transit from the back to the front of the bus.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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