The wait for buses in the Columbia area would fall gradually from an hour to as little as 15 minutes if local taxpayers chip in $272.3 million to improve service during the next 15 years, a study released Thursday says.
A dozen routes would be added - many in suburban areas of Richland County - as more buses run more often under the plan outlined to the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority.
The board that runs the struggling bus system adopted the plan as its road map to attract more riders.
But to make it happen, the plan would need an $18 million annual subsidy from Richland County taxpayers through 2025.
Bus service is at "an important crossroads" as it faces an uncertain future, transit authority chairwoman Joyce Dickerson said.
Transit authority leaders made no recommendation where the wanted aid would come from, leaving that decision up to Richland County Council.
Some area political leaders say the stage is being set for a referendum as soon as this fall for a sales tax increase of up to 1 cent on the dollar for transportation.
Part of the tax revenue would go for bus operations, while the remainder could go to a series of road projects.
A 1-cent tax hike is projected to bring in nearly $600 million more than needed to make bus service more appealing.
Settling on that package will be difficult, some council members say.
"There's nothing easy about this," said Councilwoman Val Hutchinson of Northeast Richland. "We've got a lot of bridges to cross before we get there."
Columbia city leaders could provide help to keep buses rolling but say the bulk of the subsidy must come from county coffers.
Lexington County officials are letting bus service wane and aren't being counted on for assistance.
Transit authority leaders are willing to live with a smaller subsidy than requested, but say that will slow bus service upgrades.
"The less we get, the longer it will take to make these improvement," board vice chairman Tommy Windsor of Harbison said. "But I will be happy with whatever money Richland County gives us."