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However we pay for it, we all need a better transit system

On Wednesday, my truck was in the shop. This sort of situation may mean slightly different things to different people. Here’s what it meant to me:

Wednesday morning, I needed a way to get from home — out west of West Columbia — to work, if for no other reason than I needed the paycheck to pay for getting my truck fixed.

Fortunately, my eldest daughter was staying at our house with her children — her husband is remodeling their home — and she works downtown. So she drove me way south of downtown to my office, before turning around and going back to her office.

(My wife couldn’t take me because she had my daughter’s six-month-old twins, and her car isn’t set up to accommodate the Apollo-capsule-type arrangements that they call baby carseats these days.)

From that point, I was stuck. I knew I was going to have to stay late at the office that night — later than anyone in my department — because I was going to be off Friday and needed to get at least a week’s worth of work done in the four days available. Besides, no one in my department lives anywhere near me. In fact, I started writing this column on Wednesday to get ahead, and as I typed this sentence at 5:23 p.m., I had no idea how I’d get home.

As it happened, my daughter got me at 8 p.m. Fortunately, she and her children had to go back into town anyway; otherwise picking me up would have involved a long round trip for somebody, with gasoline at $4 a gallon. I wasn’t quite at a stopping place when she arrived, so she waited downstairs for me with, as near as I could tell over her cell phone, at least one of the twins screaming.

Then, on Thursday morning, my truck still wasn’t ready. So we improvised a whole new plan, in which I drove my wife’s car into town, and my daughter left work at midday to take her car out to my wife so that she could go to work in the afternoon. But at least I was covered in case the job required me to be somewhere else in the course of the day, which sometimes happens.

This is ridiculous, folks.

Yes, I know: Poor me. These are decidedly spoiled American, middle-class problems.

But never mind me. The truth is, if you are less fortunate, you have a harder time owning a vehicle, fixing it when it’s broken, filling it with gasoline, or paying to park it. Nor can you afford to do without that job that the vehicle would take you to.

There are many places in this country where folks don’t have these problems. I have a New York subway card in my wallet from my last trip there, which I can’t bring myself to throw away because of the wonderful thing it represents: freedom from driving and pumping gas and finding a place to park, simply ducking down a few steps, and moments later finding myself in whatever part of town that I need to be in.

In the Columbia metropolitan area, we have our own sort of mass transit system, in theory. But it isn’t fully adequate to anyone’s needs. It doesn’t go from enough places to enough places often enough, and it’s tough for someone who just needs it occasionally to find out quickly and easily how to use it.

What we need is a better transit system, but what we’re in danger of having now is a worse one, or none at all. That’s because Richland County — the one local government that’s done the most to step up to the challenge of funding said system — is going to stop stepping up in October. That’s when the vehicle tax the county levied for that purpose runs out.

Last week, the County Council ditched a plan to hold a referendum asking voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase to fund the buses and other transportation needs and wants. I don’t blame the council. As we said in an editorial before the action, the Legislature has jacked up our sales taxes too high already. And besides, some of the things in that transportation proposal were more wants than needs, and only in there to get people who don’t ride buses to back the proposal.

No one knows where we go from here. The County Council doesn’t know. The citizens group that put together the plan the council rejected doesn’t know.

And just in case we got the notion that the city of Columbia would be taking up the slack, I got a preemptive call from Mayor Bob Coble Thursday morning to tell me that the options range from few to none. (While the mayor didn’t say so, that’s largely thanks to the Legislature’s tireless efforts to make sure local governments can’t pay for any local need that they aren’t paying for already.)

About the only person offering new ideas last week was regular contributor “bud” on my blog, who suggested using the city’s and county’s shares of the “hospitality tax,” a lot of which currently goes for things a whole lot less essential than a mass transit system.

As I write this, I don’t know what the best way to pay for a better transit system might be. What I do know is that Midlands governments need to find a way, for the sake of:

 Those who have no other way to get to work now.

 Those of us who would like a better way to work than we have now (and sometimes need one).

 Those “knowledge workers” who are supposed to make the planned Innovista work, and who have the option of working instead in a community where it’s easier, and cheaper, and cleaner to get around.

For more, visit my blog at thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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