Opinion Extra

Op-ed: Columbia’s bus system fails to best serve the poor

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.

It’s a fundamental contract a municipality makes with its citizens to, as well as can be done, enable all citizens the equal right to work.

Except in Columbia, where the transit system isn’t just broken, it’s flawed to the core. Not only is it possibly illegally funded, hurts worst those it is supposed to help the most, but it is paying people to use competing services to get to work and the grocery store and may actually be incentivizing poor drinking choices.

By definition, the bus system’s funding mechanism — the controversial Richland County Penny Tax — is a regressive tax that disproportionately weakens the poor’s spending power. What’s more, it also is a likely misuse of transportation tax funds, which state statute requires to be used only for financing transportation facilities.

Joe Taylor
Joe Taylor, former state Secretary of Commerce

The tax was meant to allow counties to improve roads on their own if citizens chose to pay for it. It was not designed to fund mass transit operations — to the tune of over $94 million thus far — much less help subsidize the independent ride-share choices of individuals. But that’s exactly what it’s doing.

Starting late last year, The COMET — the name of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority — began offering $5 discounts to riders using Uber and Lyft from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. While the stated aim was to serve people traveling to and from jobs after the buses stop running, the reality is tax dollars are subsidizing people who have been over-served alcohol. But that’s not all the bus system has decided to subsidize with your tax dollars. The COMET also will pay $500 toward the monthly cost of a shared rental van for commuters in Richland and Lexington counties and is expanding services in Lexington and Newberry counties at the expense of Richland County taxpayers

With enough revenue to subsidize external ride-sharing, the costs of ridership for those who rely upon it should be going down, then, right?

Wrong.

The cost for a one-way ride went up in January from $1.50 to $2, and the cost of an all-day pass went up from $3 to $4. That’s hardly incentivizing the poor to ride; it’s punishing them.

Is it right or legal for penny tax dollars to be spent on programs only taking people to grocery stores? Or who stay out til 3 a.m.? Why not pharmacies? Why not 5 a.m.? And really, to ride Uber or Lyft, a passenger must have a cell phone and credit card, two things many in poverty cannot afford. How about a working person having to pay $2 to ride to work in the morning, while folks can ride the “Connector” from Five Points to West Columbia or the Vista to eat lunch for free. Is that fair to low-income riders?

To truly help the poor get to work, we need to know what’s working and what isn’t. We need immediate financial transparency — The COMET does not list its financial statements on its website — and clear reporting of the number of unique riders daily, weekly and monthly to let everyone see whether the routes, fares and financial choices made by the transit authority are prudent and fair. Perhaps what we really need to do is downsize the service and make it free for everybody.

So, you know, the poor can get to work.

Joe E. Taylor Jr. is a lifelong resident of Richland County and served as the SC Secretary of Commerce from February 2005 to January 2011.
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