Thursday, December 9, 2010

Columbia Transit system is broke, buses about to be cut

Bus System to be cut seventy-five percent in 2011, with possibility of going out of business in 2012.

By: Keith H. Seymour

The Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority (CMRTA) recently announced that following the failed referendum to pass a penny sales tax in Richland County to repair roads, and support the transit system, that bus services will likely be cut no less than seventy-five percent. This will include the Dial A Ride Transit (DART) service for the disabled. According to Joyce Dickerson CMRTA chairperson, and Richland County Councilperson, the DART services, which travel three-quarters of a mile further than the regular buses, may only legally run at the same time the regular buses are in operation. This means that if the cuts take place on April 1, 2011, the DART system will only be available to the disabled between 5 a.m. until 10 a.m., and 2 p.m. until 7 p.m., with total elimination of weekend service. Up until this time the bus system has been supported the ten dollar additional automobile property tax that was adopted in 2006 that will cease to exist as of June 2011. As well as a one time federal grant received by the CMRTA in March.

CMRTA board members and others in favor of the penny sales tax pointed out the rise in unemployment and the inability to attract business that occurred within the the Charleston area, when they voted the same way, a few years back. Many of those opposing the penny sales tax were business people in the “Five Points,” and Vista” area, and CMRTA board member Tommy Windsor, who opposed it on the grounds that it would hurt business. However, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce came out in favor of the penny sales tax, stating that if the bus system was cut, fewer people would be working, which would in turn mean that businesses would be making less money. Among those losing jobs, if the cuts take place on April 1, 2011, will be transit employees. Specifically, forty bus drivers, twelve DART bus drivers, four mechanics, and ten supervisors and staff members. If these take place, they will only allow the buses to run until September 30, 2011.

According to CMRTA board member, Frannie Heizer, who gave the budget briefing during the executive board meeting that took place prior to the regular public meeting, the firing of the sixty-six transit employees would by itself, be a gross loss of 2.2 million dollars to the community. “This is what those people who voted against the penny tax have done to this community. I just hope they can sleep at night,” said Dickerson who has since become a a very vocal supporter of the sales tax, since her and Richland County Council's 2008 vote to disallow a referendum on the penny sales tax.

According to South Carolina State Law the penny sales tax may only be included on a referendum during a general election year. However, even if a penny tax referendum passed in 2012, the money would not be likely allocated to CMRTA, until early 2013, and the CMRTA and its member municipalities would need to find the money to fill that unfunded period of time. On the other hand, if a 2012 referendum fails, the bus system will without a doubt dissolve, due to lack of funding.

On December 20th, Richland County Council, the City of Columbia, and the CMRTA will be holding a public meeting at the Richland County Public Main Library, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The purpose of the meeting will be to public input, before voting on the proposed changes in late January 2011. Meanwhile the CMRTA is finding ways to raise money to avoid the cuts. Among the ways that this is being done are the sale or leasing of land on River Drive, selling the eight additional buses and trolleys owned by the CMRTA, and possibly applying to the secretary of state for non-profit status, so that the CMRTA may raise funds through grants and donations. Also, beginning January 1, 2010, all bus riders will be required to pay an additional seventy-five cents for each transfer, the five CMRTA administrative employees will be furloughed for one day a month, for the state amount maximum of ten months, and off duty City of Columbia Police officers will no longer be used in addition to t he regular security guards at the transit station, where recently released prisoners are dropped off.

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