WHILE MIDLANDS transit authorities still have work to do, the return of Sunday bus routes signals that service is stable, and the stage is set for improvements aimed at building the kind of system a city the size of Columbia needs and deserves.
Transit officials recently decided to restore Sunday service, which was among a number of devastating cuts that were made in 2012 for budgetary reasons. The deep cuts to what was already a woefully inadequate system ended all weekend service and reduced evening routes, among other things. Some people who depended on buses to get to work, shopping or the doctor’s office were left in a lurch.
But thanks to the passage of the transportation sales tax in November 2012, bus authorities were able to begin restoring services last year. Saturday service was restored, routes were added, and hours of operation were extended. The return of Sunday service, which will be the same as Saturday, not only signals progress in the development of the bus system, but also serves as evidence that Richland County’s voter-approved transportation sales tax is beginning to pay dividends.
While many understandably are anxious to see planned road, sidewalk and other improvements begin, the real reason the sales tax increase was proposed was to keep the bus system from going under. The funding is expected to help the system not only survive but thrive and become the economic driver that a solid transit system can be. It’s essential that the system take people where they want and need to go — whether to work, shopping, athletic events or medical appointments.
The system long has suffered from neglect, particularly during its final years in the hands of SCE&G; the utility claimed it lost millions of dollars a year on a system it clearly did not want to operate, as it did little more than keep the buses on the road.
When SCE&G transferred the buses into public hands in 2002, it provided a fund to help it survive for several years — at the same insufficient level, of course. Columbia and Richland County officials knew there was a need to provide permanent funding but failed to do so; that forced them to use stop-gap measures such as vehicle fees and an increased utility franchise fee to fund the system.
Even so, transit officials still had to resort to deep cuts in the summer of 2012 that claimed weekend services.
While increasing Richland County’s already too-high sales tax wasn’t the ideal remedy, voters agreed to stomach it to support the buses and other transportation projects. It is imperative that transit authorities respect the trust voters have instilled in them and manage the new funding well; the bus system will receive 29 percent of the more than $1 billion the tax is projected to generate over the next 22 years.
To that end, the transit authority board must make every effort to get the best deal for taxpayers as it negotiates with a vendor to operate the bus service, which never had been bid out until now. Veolia Transportation has operated the system the entire time it has been in public hands, and while it has generally delivered good service and been helpful during tough times, the public legitimately has been concerned that it provides too few details about how tax dollars it receives are spent. Bidding the service out gives the public an opportunity to determine whether the Midlands is getting a comparatively good deal — in quality and price.
With bus service being restored to a stable level and a new operator expected to be chosen any time now, things are looking up for the bus system. It’s about time.