WE COMMEND Columbia City Council for pledging to stop levying a utility franchise fee used to help fund the Midlands public bus system if voters approve a penny-on-the-dollar transportation sales tax on Nov. 6.
That would be the responsible thing to do; it would be excessive to continue charging the fee. Richland County Council already has ceased collection of a vehicle fee that it used to help fund the system the past several years.
But while it is good that the councils won’t needlessly burden citizens with these fees should the sales tax pass, they must remain open to continuing or reviving the levies if the sales tax fails. Considering the fact that voters defeated the measure previously — although by a slim margin — there’s no guarantee that it will pass this time around.
City Council increased the franchise fee on utility bills from 3 percent to 5 percent to provide funding for buses after voters rejected the sales tax increase in November 2010. SCE&G, which pays the city the fee for access to public rights of way for its power lines, passes the fee to its customers. The nearly $4 million the utility fee generates is earmarked for Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority, which oversees the bus system.
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City Council recently voted unanimously to rescind the utility fee, adopted in February 2011, should the sales tax pass. The council has gotten complaints that the city would be “double-dipping” by collecting the fee.
If the penny sales tax increase is approved, 29 percent of the $1.17 billion it is projected to generate over the next 22 years — or about $301 million — would go to improving the bus system and other transit needs. The remainder would be used to improve roads and build sidewalks, bike paths and other projects. While it’s understandable that Columbia and Richland officials are focused on getting the sales tax approved, it also is their duty to have a backup plan for keeping the buses operating if voters reject that option.
Sure, many will be disappointed that their roads or bike paths won’t get built if the sales tax fails. But those who depend on bus service to get to work and doctors’ offices and the grocery store will face potentially life-changing crises. That’s why it’s essential for Columbia and Richland to have a Plan B aimed at providing the Midlands with a viable bus system.
Not only must they be open to continuing the utility and vehicle fees, but they must find a way to increase revenue — whether through partnerships with other governments and employers or finding new funding streams. We have argued that the two should explore a countywide franchise fee and other sources, including getting the Legislature to allow hospitality taxes to be used to help fund transit.
Simply continuing to fund the bus system at the current level is unacceptable. Existing service — reduced this summer by 40 percent — is far inferior to what this community needs and deserves. As it stands, if the sales tax fails and the city and county refuse to provide further funding, the bus system would run out of local funds at the end of June.
Then what? That’s a question Columbia and Richland officials are obligated to have an answer to — sooner rather than later.