July 20--The capital city-area's bus system got a jolt to its failing heart Tuesday, but bus service still remains in intensive care.
Columbia City Council agreed to extend the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority up to $950,000 of the $3.8 million it already has committed to bus service. The infusion of one-fourth of the full annual sum would keep buses running through the end of September.
Richland County Council, in a coordinated effort Tuesday, kicked in about $418,000, the quarterly portion of its $1.67 million annual commitment.
"It gets them out of the crisis mode and into the planning mode," Mayor Steve Benjamin said in outlining the lifeline that would postpone plans to cut bus routes by about 60 percent if funding was not approved.
The shot of cash comes with conditions: The CMRTA must hire an outside firm, possibly as soon as Thursday, to conduct an in-depth financial audit of the bus system, which has been operated by Veolia Transportation since 2002. The bus system board also must move quickly to hire an interim executive director and overhaul itself. The 16 members of the board have been asked in recent weeks to resign, clearing the way for restructuring. The board's budget committee chairman submitted his resignation Tuesday.
The buses have been running since July 1 without the annual intergovernmental agreement that has spelled out financial and other commitments among Columbia, Richland and Lexington counties for the nine years since South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. turned the buses over to the transit authority.
Columbia Councilwoman Belinda Gergel, who also is vice chairwoman of the CMRTA board, pressed City Council to support the plan. "If we do not do this (today)," she said at an afternoon work session, "I think we're saying goodbye to the bus system."
Bob Liming, a CMRTA board member who attended the City Council meeting, underscored the arrangement does not solve the $3 million deficit the bus system must resolve by June 30, 2012. The most immediate need in the $13 million annual operating budget is for about $443,000 by Sept. 30 to offset rising fuel prices.
"It breathes some life into the system, but it's not full life," Liming said. "It gets us to October, pays the bills and keeps the service to the people who need it."
The city's offer did not address the fuel cost shortage and comes as city leaders seek to restructure the CMRTA board, find new sources of income, purchase more fuel-efficient buses and expand into commuter transportation and light rail.
Councilman Daniel Rickenmann worried about extending the money before the audit has determined how well the authority and Veolia have operated the buses. He suggested making monthly payments rather than quarterly.
"We're still going down the path of destruction," Rickenmann said, though he voted for the plan.
Benjamin said the system's cash flow problems are too severe for such a short-term fix.
He also again raised the prospect of not renewing Veolia's contract after it expires Sept. 30. The company, which runs bus systems in Charleston and many states, has never faced a competitive bid for the service.
The company gets about $10.5 million yearly from CMRTA, Benjamin said, adding that he doubts Veolia's reported figures about its profits. "They say the margin is 7 percent," the mayor said. "I doubt that. I doubt that seriously."
Veolia has been unwilling to open its books to the satisfaction of its critics, including Benjamin. The company argues that as a private, for-profit operation it cannot be forced to disclose that much detail without putting itself at a financial disadvantage compared with a potential competitor.
Benjamin mentioned having a nonprofit operate the buses, but he did not offer details.
He said he opposes a request from the CMRTA that the city release $618,000 it earmarked years ago for brick-and-mortar improvement at bus headquarters on Lucius Road. The board wants to use the bulk of that to pay its fuel overrun through Sept. 30 and use the rest to cut into the remaining $2.6 million deficit.