Riders of the Columbia-area bus service are slated to get 10 new, covered bus stops and 15 new benches in the next 18 months, but finding sites has proven to be slow going, the bus system director said.
“We’re just starting our shelter and bench program,” director of The COMET, Bob Schneider, said. “We are 20 years behind where we should be. That’s not uncommon in a system like ours that has had limited resources.”
Now that buses have stable income because of Richland County’s transportation penny sale tax, transit planners are upgrading buses, routes and bus stops.
The covered stops, called shelters, and benches are to be built in increments of $200,000, with federal money providing the bulk of each allotment, Schneider said.
COMET planners have chosen 45 sites for the first round of construction. The most heavily used bus stops are to get new facilities first, and if one site proves difficult, transit officials will move to the next in line, he said.
A prototype shelter has been built near bus system headquarters on Lucius Road off River Drive, near the Broad River. It features The COMET’s color scheme and signage and includes a large route map on the side of the shelter.
But other construction has been hampered by the difficulties of finding appropriate sites that can accommodate shelters, which must meet federal access standards for the disabled and other requirements, Schneider said. Resistance from property owners, regulations for sites along state-maintained roads and cost limitations also hamstring the process, he said.
“It seems like there should be one here,” Schneider said of locations that seem logical. “‘Here,’ it seems, is a tough word. Some shelters are really, really easy to put in. Others are a challenge.”
Bob Liming has been using the bus system for 20 years and served for seven years on the commission that oversees its operation.
“They’re making slow progress,” Liming said of improvements since the penny tax brought millions into the system.
But a plan that calls for the installation of 25 shelters and benches each fiscal year falls far short of meeting the need, he said. “Everyone living in Columbia and Lexington County will be long dead when this is done. That’s just a reality. Do the math.
“It’s not good for citizens who have to stand in 100-degree weather or pouring down rain,” Liming said.
He also questioned the wisdom of building one of the first shelters near COMET headquarters. “There aren’t thousands of people there on Lucius Road waiting to catch the bus,” Liming said.
An example of the delays Schneider cited happened at family-owned, 50-year-old Boozer Shopping Center along heavily traveled Broad River Road.
“They told us, ‘Our board of directors said, no,’” Schneider said, adding he then asked, “So can we meet with your board?”
The answer the COMET received? “‘No, we’re not interested. Please don’t bother us again,’” Schneider said.
Sylvia Brannon is the board’s secretary and the eldest daughter of Wyman Boozer, who built the 16-acre shopping center in 1962.
She said the current bus stop on the corner of her property, which does not have a shelter, has become an eyesore.
“It was just a disgrace, with all the litter and bottles .... drug paraphernalia – a nasty thing. It’s a constant problem,” Brannon said of the bus stop, which she said also attracts homeless people who ride buses.
The shopping center pays a clean-up crew to keep the property appealing to its business tenants and their customers, she said. A shelter would make matters worse, Brannon said.
The COMET encountered a slowdown for another shelter it wants to build near Rosewood Crossing, the new shopping center at Devine Street and Jackson Boulevard where a Kmart stood for years.
“We thought it was a slam dunk,” Schneider said of the location. “We’re going on six months here on what – there’s that word (here) – would seem easy.”
The delays at the location are coming from the S.C. Department of Transportation, which has its own list of guidelines to follow, he said.
“It creates procedural delays, and permitting can be a challenge,” Schneider said.
Efforts to reach officials at the state transportation agency were unsuccessful.