Coming soon: Free bus rides to downtown Columbia hot spots

Buses loaded with technology hit the streets of Columbia

Columbia bus riders will have access to free WiFi, ports to charge their phones, security cameras to help keep the peace, as well as smoother and more reliable rides that run on time, officials say.
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Columbia bus riders will have access to free WiFi, ports to charge their phones, security cameras to help keep the peace, as well as smoother and more reliable rides that run on time, officials say.

Downtown workers, students and visitors to the capital city soon will have bus service that will take them to tourist sites throughout the city center and to the Five Points entertainment district.

Starting Sept. 1, the Soda Cap Connector will begin running new, high-tech, teal-colored buses from the banks of the Congaree River, through the Vista, past the Capitol complex, the University of South Carolina and Benedict and Allen colleges every seven to 15 minutes – all for free.

Four buses will travel the 51 / 2-mile, color-coded routes in an attempt to lure passengers from their cars as they go out to lunch, shop or go to bars. Other would-be riders might leave their personal vehicles, taxis or Uber rides behind for a bus to the State Museum, the Columbia Museum of Art, EdVenture Children’s Museum and other points of interest.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is change the culture,” said Ann August, interim director of Central Midlands Transit Authority. “If we can get 50 people out of their cars twice a week, that helps the whole city.” The goals are to reduce traffic congestion, upgrade Columbia’s quality of life and improve air quality.

The free fares will last at least six months, officials at The COMET bus system said. Depending on the outcome of that trial period, fares might be imposed or the five-day-a-week service could become seasonal, August said.

Talk of a downtown connector has circulated for years. So why now?

“We have reliable vehicles that we could put on the road,” August said last week of buses bought with federal grants and transportation penny sales taxes. “You don’t want to start a new service when you have (old) vehicles that can’t accommodate the service.”

The target audience for the new connector is, well, everyone, August said.

But attracting millennials would be a bonus for a ridership that largely is composed of low-income, retired people or passengers who are more accustomed to public transit.

“We want to be able to maintain the ridership we have ... but we want to capture new riders that might normally get in their car to go to lunch,” she said.

Initially, the plan was to have the connector strictly for the entertainment districts, said Marsh Johnson, president of advocacy group Midlands Transit Riders Association. Extending the routes from the river and to the historically black colleges was a victory for which the association had long pushed.

“We have not had that connector going east/west,” Johnson said. “This is a win-win for workers.”

COMET officials are seeking a sponsor that would pay a fee to use the buses as mobile advertisements. A soft-drink bottler or a brewery is preferred, said Samuel Scheib, planning and development director at The COMET.

The name Soda Cap Connector is intended to capitalize on the popularity of the Main Street Soda City market on Saturdays and a shorthand reference to the capital city, transit officials said. A soda cap logo will appear on buses, stop signs and in store windows.

Two routes will operate from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday just after college students return for the school year.

There will be 32 bus stops, designated with signs identifying them as being on connector routes, Scheib said. The loop from the Vista to Benedict and Allen be will marked with teal-colored signs. The loop from the Vista to Five Points will be a pinkish-red.

The routes will add only a couple of new stops to keep travel time down and make the connector more attractive in a city where most people are wedded to their cars, even for short trips, transportation officials said.

“It’s real efficient, but it doesn’t try to do too much,” Scheib said. “There are a lot of attractions right along the routes and more within a couple of blocks.

“It’s a balance,” he said, explaining that buses will not go onto the campuses of USC, Benedict College or Allen University. But buses will be within walking distance from the edges of the campuses.

It’s unclear whether the two new routes will attract new riders, especially younger ones.

But those who climb aboard will be surveyed to determine if the new routes are worth keeping or whether they need to be altered or cut back, August said. Online and paper surveys will be done during the six-month trial period.

To learn more

A public hearing is set for next week for riders and others interested in the new Soda Cap Connector.

Where: The main downtown bus transit terminal at Sumter and Laurel streets

When: July 13, 5 p.m.-6:30 p.m.

Format: An informal drop-in where staff from The COMET will explain the pilot program and get reaction from riders and others interested in bus service

Key Stops

The Soda Cap Connector in downtown Columbia will offer bus riders a way to quickly get from the Vista to Five Points and locations in between for free. Here are some of the sites passengers will have access to along the two routes that start Sept. 1, providing buses within every 15 minutes, five days a week, including Saturday.

▪  Restaurants, bars and shops in the Vista and Five Points

▪  EdVenture Children’s Museum, the State Museum, the Columbia Museum of Art

▪  The Metropolitan Convention Center and Colonial Life Arena

▪  USC, Benedict and Allen campuses

▪  Hotels in the Vista and along Gervais Street

▪  The State House complex

SOURCE: Central Midlands Transit Authority