Columbia’s bus riders will be getting to work and around town in 31 new, high-tech buses that, within just a few weeks, will comprise almost three quarters of the system’s aging fleet.
Tens of thousands of COMET riders will be treated to free Wi-Fi, charging ports for mobile phones, security cameras to help keep the peace, as well as smoother and more reliable rides that will help buses run on time, officials say.
A handful of the new diesel buses have been phased in since December, when the first one went into service.
Regular rider Eric Cue on Thursday was on a bus headed to the popular shopping district along Harbison Boulevard.
Never miss a local story.
“They’re much quieter and brighter on the inside – lighter,” the 44-year-old West Columbia resident said of bus number 706. “It’s like going to the library.”
The system’s interim director, Ann August, sees those advantages – and an even bigger one. “For those folks who voted for the penny, this lets them know we’re spending their money (for upgrades),” she said.
The New Flyer fleet of 23 35-foot buses and eight 40-footers cost $16.2 million, according to COMET officials. Money from the transportation penny sales tax on items sold in Richland County provided $2.7 million of the total, August said. The bulk came from the federal government.
The buses are making rides better and more efficient for the more than 200,000 trips the buses make monthly. But the high-tech features also are intended to attract younger riders, August said.
“Studies have shown that millennials don’t want to own vehicles anymore,” she said. “We want those riders, too.”
During the trip to the Harbison area, 24-year-old Sammie Lawrence Garrett sat riveted to his smartphone, which was connected to the overhead charging system.
His father, Sammy Garrett, 55, was more into the easy ride. “It’s a smooth ride, very comfortable,” the elder Garrett said. “I love it.”
Smartphones also will be adaptable, through an app, to pay fares, much as they are now for downtown parking meters, said Samuel Scheib, The COMET’s director of planning and development.
Onboard cameras record what’s happening on buses and should help settle customer complaints, Scheib said. The cameras also can be accessed offsite with laptops to get real-time views in the event of a serious problem.
Locator devices that are on older buses will be transferred to the new ones. The devices allow operators to track exactly where buses are and help to coordinate efforts to keep them on time.
As with several others who were on the bus Thursday, Garrett voted in favor of the controversial 2012 penny sales tax increase in Richland County that generated the money for better buses, walking trails and road improvements.
But Cue, a rider for 15 years, isn’t happy that he lives in Lexington County, which rejected a transportation penny increase in 2014. “I pay taxes for a service I can’t get” near home, Cue said.
The rollout of the new buses began in earnest in March. The most heavily used routes, such as the one along Columbia’s North Main Street, got the new ones first, August said. But the buses have been rotated to less-used routes as part of the training of The COMET’s 112 drivers, said Burley Wilkins, the general manager of Transdev, the company that operates the system.
Driver Christopher Spencer, with eight months on the job, said the new vehicles are better than the ones he drove for years in Philadelphia. Even the old ones here, which at the moment make up the majority of the local fleet, are more reliable.
“The ride is a lot smoother” on the new ones, Spencer said. “They haven’t broke down on the road, as opposed to the old ones.”
There were 749 breakdowns in the 12 months between last June 1 and that date this year of buses that date to 2002 and have an average mileage of 584,705 miles, according to figures from Transdev maintenance director Jason Woznac.
Breakdowns cause problems for passengers, too.
Virginia Gundersen said she often had to wait 20 to 30 minutes for another bus to arrive when breakdowns occurred. The 72-year-old is a lifelong bus rider, having gotten used to them when she and her husband, an Army soldier, lived in Europe and Central America, where buses riding is more common.
Two aging Blue Bird buses were lost to fires during the past 12 months, but no one was injured, Woznac said.
That prompted another note of optimism from August, the system’s interim director. “We won’t have all the breakdowns we’ve been having and, hopefully, we won’t have the fires we’ve been having.”
What $16 million buses offer
A fleet of 31 new, high-tech buses are slowly being rolled out on the capital city area’s most-used routes. The $16 million fleet is replacing buses that date to 2002. Here are some of the key features found on the new buses.
▪ An automated voice system that announces each stop
▪ Charging ports so riders can plug in their phones if batteries are wearing down
▪ Apps that allow smartphone users to track the location of buses and whether they are on time as well as to pay with their phones
▪ Free Wi-Fi
▪ A high-definition camera system that can be accessed from elsewhere to provide real-time views of what happens on buses
▪ More comfortable rides
SOURCE: Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority