Columbia bus services delay riles customers

mlucas@thestate.comJanuary 26, 2013 

Efforts to restore some bus services, such as midday and evening hours, are on hold pending the outcoming of penny sales tax court appeals.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM DOMINICK

  • Coming Saturday In addition to restoring routes and improving services, the transit authority in coming months will decide who the next contractor to run its bus system will be. Second in a two-part series about the bus service’s challenges in 2013.

— Damon Wilson started following the penny sales tax referendum even before it passed by 6,600 votes last fall.

“I was anxious for it to pass because I kept hearing people say it would help get buses get back on their normal routine,” said Wilson, a bus rider who lives and works in Columbia.

So when Wilson heard the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority has put on hold, pending court appeals, the plans to restore some services cut last summer, such as midday and evening hours, he became frustrated.

“I was kind of disgusted when I heard the reason it was taking so long,” Wilson said. “I was very frustrated. It’s hurting riders and (bus) drivers. You have a lot of drivers who have been laid off and they want to go back to work.”

Michael Letts, an opponent of the penny sales tax and co-chairman for Citizens for New Elections in Richland County, filed an appeal Dec. 27 to be heard by the S.C. Supreme Court, after losing earlier motions with the county and state election commissions. The appeal is based on Richland County’s shortage of voting machines.

The high court has not given notice as to when it will consider the case, Letts said, but briefings to the court are due Feb. 15.

Transit authority officials say they cannot reinstate services until the appeals are settled.

“We’ve had a pretty rough past year for our transit riders,” CMRTA chairman Brian Newman said. “As a result of lack of funding, some of our riders just don’t believe that local officials are committed to having a high quality transit system. (Now that) we’re unable to move as quickly as we had hoped, that just feeds more into that.”

Newman says the rounds of appeals have prevented the board from green-lighting a plan to restore some service ahead of August’s kick-in of full funding from the sales tax.

Shortly after Richland County voters approved the penny tax Nov. 6, CMRTA officials said they would be looking to restore some services by as early as this spring, either with help from a short-term loan from the county or other funding source that would have been paid back when full-funding kicked in.

The appeals also have affected the authority’s ability to apply for federal matching dollars and to hire people for route planning and implementing new services, Newman says.

“Ultimately, if we don’t have the funds available, then we don’t have the funds to purchase our smaller, more efficient buses and we don’t have the funds to hire staff that are going to work with the community and grow our system,” he said.

In the interim, Newman said all the transit system can do is “lay out our plan.” In “Vision: 2020,” the transit system has laid out a road map for improving the system, once funding is secured. That plan includes more focused route planning along high-frequency corridors, the use of new technologies such as compressed natural gas for greater efficiency, and flex-routes that would use small buses to pick up and drop off customers in less busy areas.

Newman said he frequently gets phone calls and emails from riders who are more than a little fed up.

At the transit authority’s December meeting, he said the protest was costing the entire community and “single-handedly tying up folks from being able to get to their jobs” and “from going to school.”

For his part, Letts said his group thinks there are bigger things at issue in the appeal than just the transit system.

“It’s a matter of the law,” he said. “I think it’s crucial. The evidence has come out that it is not actually in dispute that it was an unlawful election. The law clearly says you have to have one machine for every 250 people. (It) says you shall. It doesn’t say you may so we take it as a mandate.”

Wilson said he hopes Letts’ appeal before the high court is quickly denied so that riders like him can see routes reinstated.

“A lot of people were told if they wanted to see the bus routes come back, to go out and vote and we went out and did that,” he said. “Now we are being told the whole thing is on hold.”

Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.

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