2006-03-31 / Business

CMRTA cuts cost by reducing service

By John Temple Ligon

Photo by Natasha Whitling
Photo by Natasha Whitling

In the fall of 1991, a bus service comparison report was issued to the city and to SCANA. The report surveyed bus service in every city in the U.S. up to 100,000 more people than the Columbia bus system's area population and every city down to 100,000 fewer people than the Columbia bus system's area population. The main criterion was each city's number of buses on the street at morning rush hour. The number of rush hour buses was meshed with the population for a per capita comparison.

Leaning heavily on the bus service statistics issued by the American Public Transit Association, using data supplied by the federal government, the survey concluded the Columbia bus system's total of 34 morning rush hour buses amounted to about half the national average in peak period service. Some cities, like Greenville and Augusta at the time, had worse service. But many cities had far better service.

Austin, Tex., for example, put 343 buses on the street in the morning rush hour. That was 15 years ago, and Austin has no doubt grown in both population and bus service since then. But even back then, when Columbia could compare itself with Austin, Austin had 50% more people and 10 times the buses on the street at morning rush hour. On a per capita basis, Austin had about six times the bus service found in Columbia.

A smaller city, Madison, Wisc., with about 100,000 fewer people than Columbia in its bus service area population, also had about six times the service. In other words, if Columbia kept up with Austin and Madison, instead of 34 buses there would be about 200 running the streets of Columbia at morning rush hour.

The cost efficient trick in the greater service in Austin and Madison is the combination of far better frequency and reliability, so each bus actually averages more riders than the Columbia bus. If the Austin bus is missed, the rider waits for the next one to come along soon enough. In Columbia, if the bus is missed, the rider misses work while waiting on the next bus. 

Today, the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority runs about the same number of buses SCANA ran for the morning rush hour. On the SCANA bus route map in 1991, there were 34 routes listed on the back. On its website CMRTA lists 29 routes, five fewer than before. CMRTA wants to reduce costs by taking out nine routes and by eliminating weekend and holiday service across the board. Bus service finances are bleak. The SCANA subsidy runs out in three years, and the City of Columbia is tapped out.

The city agreed SCANA would contribute $2.4 million each year until October 16, 2009, and the city kicks in about $1 million annually. While it reduces costs, CMRTA is pushing for the passage of a 1-cent-out-of-every-dollar sales tax, to be split between highway improvements and the bus system. The vote is this November, and the proposal is routine. Charleston operates its bus system, one they also inherited from SCANA, with a half-cent sales tax.

If there is a bus rider profile, it probably has something to do with socio/economic strata - people who work nights, weekends, and holidays. Food service workers and members of hospital staffs can be found on the bus, and their employers need people just about all hours every day. By reducing costs and reducing service, CMRTA is driving off its ridership.

What was deemed one of the worst bus systems in the country 15 years ago could today well make the title, America's Worst.

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