Leaders seek a route to bus system's future + survey

It's shaping up as do-or-die time for bus service in the Columbia area.

The Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority board will look at a plan today to improve service and facilities for the next 15 years.

But the question of whether the financially struggling bus system will survive to put those proposals into use is up in the air.

Central Midlands leaders plan to pass along the improvement plan - described as costing in the neighborhood of $125 million - to Richland County Council.

It will be left to the 11 council members to settle on a way to keep buses rolling beyond the end of next year while enhancing service to increase ridership.

The options to keep buses on area roads - all unpopular - are limited:

- Continue local vehicle fees, described by some council members as the most-hated tax in the area.

- Ask voters this fall to OK a new sales tax for transportation, mainly for bus operations and road improvements. It could be as high at as extra cent on the dollar, increasing the levy to 10 cents on some purchases and making it among the highest in South Carolina.

- Persuade large employers whose workers use buses to chip in to augment a combination of taxpayer subsidies.

All the choices are "a tough sell," said Lill Mood of Chapin, a member of the bus board.

It may become tougher soon.

Columbia leaders are looking at raising both property taxes and water and sewer rates shortly, decisions that also affect nonresidents served by its utilities.

But Central Midlands officials say the time for delay is over - the survival of bus service is at stake.

"There isn't ever a good time to do this," said Tommy Windsor of Harbison, vice chairman of the Central Midlands board that is seeking more taxpayer aid. "And the economy is in a bad way."

Settling on a permanent source of revenue is urgent as three major sources of local aid are set to expire, Central Midlands officials say:

- South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. - the Cayce-based utility that formerly ran the buses - is making its final payment as part of a transfer to public operation.

- The county vehicle fee expires June 30, 2011.

- A subsidy from Columbia also expires June 30, 2011.

Those sources combined provide $7.5 million - about 42 percent - of the $17.7 million it is costing this year for buses to roll.

Their loss would have a domino effect.

Federal aid - the source of nearly half of revenue for bus operation - would fall since it requires a local match, officials said.

And raising fares above the $1.50-per-trip maximum would make it unaffordable for more riders, Central Midlands officials say.

Meanwhile, limited public service in Lexington County is set to end Oct. 1 unless officials there unexpectedly end their refusal to support it.

The choice on what to do is up to Richland County officials since council members are the only ones who can tap a funding source that's big enough, because it would be countywide.

Central Midlands leaders won't make a recommendation on how to pay for improvements considered vital to make buses more appealing as well as avert a shutdown.

"It's going to be up to council members on what they think is politically palatable," Windsor said.

The choice is a dilemma, some council members said.

"I had to go back and bite the bullet" on retaining the vehicle fee in 2008, Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson of St. Andrews said. "I don't know if I can go back and ask for that again."

Dickerson also is chairwoman of the Central Midlands board.

A sales tax seems the only possibility, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said.

"The car tax, without question, is coming off," he predicted.

But a push for a sales tax increase fell apart in 2008 amid infighting over which road projects should be included in the package.

Failure to settle on a new source of local aid could leave Central Midlands facing closure in late 2011, officials said.

Federal aid would allow it to limp along at a radically reduced level that could be as little as 10 percent of the current routes, Coble said.

But some Central Midlands leaders question the system's value if forced to shrink so much.

"It would be almost to the point of what's the use," Windsor said.