Second in a two-part series

Columbia transit board mulls future bus contract

mlucas@thestate.comJanuary 27, 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

Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority board members will consider this year whether to stick with Veolia Transportation to run Columbia area buses.

CMRTA chairman Brian Newman said the board is pleased with the job Veolia has done but will use the upcoming hiring and contract negotiation process to “examine all aspects of what it takes to run the buses” – including cost.

“It’s important that our citizens are getting the biggest bang for their buck and to make sure that we have the most efficient operator in place,” Newman says.

Veolia’s current operating contract has been running at about $5.7 million a year, Veolia’s general manager, Bob Schneider said, but the company, which has not received rate increases over the past two years, expects that cost to rise closer to $10 million.

Considering Veolia’s contract – and implementing a growth plan for Columbia’s bus service, once penny sales tax funding is available – is one of the board’s biggest tasks this year.

Board member Lill Mood said there was a lot of talk, some time ago, about why the board had stayed with the same contractor for so long.

“(But) the funding was so uncertain that nobody was certain anyone would even want to bid on the contract,” she said.

Veolia, among the largest private sector operators of public transit systems in North America, has operated the Midlands’ bus system since 2011.

In November, the board moved to extend Veolia’s contract six months, through April. Veolia has since asked for a one-year extension, which would continue its contract to April 2014. The board has not announced a decision.

Still, Newman said CMRTA would like to keep the service provider in place through the hiring and contract negotiations process to “ensure stability.”

Selecting a contractor, he said, will be a decision his 11-member board – made up mostly of business and community leaders from Columbia and Richland and Lexington counties – will need help with.

“We don’t necessarily have transit operators on our board, or people who have transportation expertise,” he said. “With that said, the prudent thing is to engage someone who does have that expertise.”

Since the board cannot tap the expertise of Schneider – who has a conflict of interest, since he serves as Veolia’s general manager and CMRTA’s executive director – members will hire a consultant to guide them through the process.

The board moved at its January meeting to pay the consultant, who will work through the duration of the service provider’s hiring process, a one-time fee not to exceed $75,000. The board hopes to have someone in place by February or early March.

Hiring a consultant does not necessarily mean that CMRTA will part ways with Veolia or Schneider, who Newman credits with leading the bus system through “difficult times” – including service cuts prompted by funding shortfalls in a difficult economy.

“This consultant is going to review the Veolia contract, and basically help determine the efficiency or the cost effectiveness of their contract,” Newman said.

In addition to selecting a contractor, Newman said the board will have a full plate in 2013, especially when revenue from the penny sales tax comes in around mid-August. That will help get some bus service cuts reinstated, as well as allow for other improvements, such as adding new buses or improving shelters.

The passing of the penny sales tax and improving the Midlands bus system was more critical than people may have realized, Newman added.

“I think it’s going to help increase activity in Columbia,” he says. “And it’s going to be a great foundation for economic development.”

Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.

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