Managing Columbia’s buses

mlucas@thestate.comFebruary 14, 2013 

— While bus officials wait to hear from the state Supreme Court on an appeal filed by some penny sales tax opponents, board members Wednesday took up other matters — namely whether to revisit how the bus system’s management is structured.

The preliminary discussions were taken up at the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority’s executive committee meeting, “so the board knows ...what to look for as it starts the procurement process,” said CMRTA chairman Brian Newman.

The board expects to put its service contract out for bid this summer.

The Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority has a “hybrid model” of management, in which the transit authority’s executive director also serves as the bus system’s general manager. An 11-member board makes decisions and sets policy, while a third-party contractor runs the buses.

The model is similar to systems in Savannah, New Orleans and Winston-Salem, N.C.

At Wednesday’s meeting, board members and at least one state transportation expert weighed in on the pros and cons of different models. Any decisions as to how the board wants to structure the bus system’s management can be written in to both a request for proposals and ultimately its contract, members said.

The board also voted in January to hire a transit consultant to guide members through the bidding and negotiations process. Board members said they hoped to have someone in that role by April. That person also could provide input as to the best form of management.

Also discussed was the degree of accountability the contractor should have in revealing such things as operational costs and salaries. Veolia, which has operated Midlands buses since 2002, has been criticized for providing too few details on how public money is spent.

But CMRTA’s chairman said communicating the message of more openness is “up to the board.”

“Ultimately, we were all given this responsibility to make sure we manage the public’s funds accurately and that we’re not wasting any money,” Newman said. “This RFP process is our opportunity to do that.”

Discussions on management models and the contract and hiring process for the service provider are expected to continue.

Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.

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