SC: New Bus Plan Intended to Cut Service, Stop Deficits

April 09--The metropolitan bus system is to be cut and persistent deficits would disappear under a new plan reached among local leaders.

To be announced Tuesday, the plan would eliminate Sunday and under-used routes, combine others, but preserve the midday and Saturday service that have been on the chopping block, according to several sources who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

Those cuts and other belt-tightening measures would substantially downsize the number of routes in the $13 million system and might allow leaders to ask voters in November for less than a penny-on-the-dollar increase in the local sales tax to run the buses.

The plan is to be touted as a way to balance the budget of the financially struggling service — perhaps through September 2013 — without asking taxpayers for more stop gap measures, sources told The State newspaper.

A statement on Friday announcing a Tuesday news conference to lay out the plan said that leaders from the city, Richland County and the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority would disclose "a new approach to stabilizing the future of CMRTA."

Sources who spoke to the newspaper said the plan would affect fewer than 20 percent of the largely low-income riders who rely on travel along 23 routes to get to work and keep medical and other appointments. The buses have carried about 2.2 million riders per year, according to a 2010 in-depth study of the transit system.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is to be among those at the 10:30 a.m. news conference, supported what others said — that the cuts would affect about 15 percent of riders. Efforts to reach City Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman, chairman of CMRTA, and its director, Bob Schneider, were unsuccessful.

Several members of Columbia and county councils said they had not been briefed on the details of the plan.

For more than a year, the city and county councils have been voting to spend money in a piecemeal fashion to reduce what once was a $3.5 million deficit. As recently as last month, interim financing had reduced the deficit to $1.1 million for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

But, the sources said, city and county politicians have decided taxpayers can contribute no more. That political reality has pushed council members to come up with another approach to dealing with persistent shortfalls.

Bus supporters have been banking on the prospect of a controversial alternative — adding a penny to the county's 7 percent sales tax as a way to permanently pay for transit services.

It is unclear how the new plan would affect negotiations on whether to put a sales tax proposal on the November ballot. Voters in November 2010 narrowly rejected a broad plan that would have used the money for transit, roads and other improvements. In recent months, some political leaders have raised the prospect of a smaller increase targeted specifically for bus service.

The deficit, and various ways of reducing it, has driven the CMRTA to consider cutting service from 40 percent to 63 percent and even deeper. Cuts of 63 percent would have eliminated half the routes and cost the jobs of 55 Veolia Transportation employees. Veolia has been under contract to operate the buses since 2002.

In October, the transit authority held public hearings on a 40 percent cut that would have meant ending all weekend, holiday and midday service and laying off 25 percent of Veolia's drivers and other employees. Service to disabled residents also would have been reduced. Federal transit laws prohibit cuts without first giving riders a chance to respond.

In March, the CMRTA board delayed for a month any cuts while it again asked for more money from Columbia and Richland County taxpayers. At the time, Newman hinted that alternative plans were underway. "We believe there is another way of working on this," he said.

The new plan apparently would end the CMRTA's hat-in-hand approach to funding. Last year, city and county councils agreed to a combined $5.5 million to prop up the buses. But their money had strings. It stretched payments into fiscal quarters, required the CMRTA to overhaul its board and led to the hiring of a Veolia executive, Schneider, to run the service. Schneider's duties as executive director for the first time granted the director authority over the five-person CMRTA staff.

Since assuming the post late last year, Schneider has been studying ways to save money, including streamlining service to end the least-used routes, combining other routes and finding other sources of income. Federal grants can be used to buy but not operate buses.

Staff writer Mindy Lucas contributed.

Copyright 2012 - The State, Columbia, S.C.

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