Communicating with CMRTA
Representatives of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority (CMRTA) presented their plans to a quorum of Columbia City Council on Monday, March 15. Speaking was Mitzi Javers, the executive director of CMRTA, and on hand was Joyce Dickerson, chair of the CMRTA board and District 2’s member of Richland County Council.
In AT&T’s telephone book there are three telephone numbers listed under CMRTA at 1409 Huger Street: 217.9019, 217.9362 and 540.1280. When called the last number was disconnected, and the first two were never answered, not even a recording of any kind.
The following was found on CMRTA’s Web site: “If you are with the media and interested in learning more about the CMRTA, please call Stephanie Jones at (803) 233-2432 or email email@example.com or Brittany Doten at 255- 7085 or email britt firstname.lastname@example.org.” Doten returned the call from her cell phone at the Washington, D.C. airport.
Doten explained the CMRTA service–area population was counted as 250,000 people, even though Columbia’s metropolitan statistical area population is a bit more than 700,000, while its urban area is cited as about 450,000. The CMRTA bus fleet includes 41 full–sized buses, but each morning at peak demand time, 8 am, there are 34 buses rolling on the routes. In 1991, SCANA also ran 34 buses at morning peak demand time.
Lack of improvement
The best explanation of the abject lack of improvement in the Columbia bus system since 1991 is SCANA ran the buses until 2002, and there has been no reliable or sufficient funding since. Only now is Columbia getting serious about funding an adequate bus system.
Back in 1991, the bus system in Austin, Texas was cited as an example of what Columbia should see as a guide, as a bus system that covered the entire community. Then on a per capita basis, Austin provided six times the service found in Columbia with SCANA. Since then, the bus system in Austin has grown to 325 buses on workday mornings at 8 am, and a new 32–mile fixed–rail commuter system begins service next week.
Nearby Charlotte, as a more local example, had about three times Columbia’s service in its bus system back in 1991, and now Charlotte has more buses plus light rail, the first half of which has been running while the second half is about to start service.
Keeping Columbia– area workers on the move as best it can with limited funds, CMRTA has an annual operating budget of $11.5 million to connect the area’s 700,000 people. Austin’s annual transit operating budget is $165 million for its area population of 1,700,000. The total Columbia–area population experiences worker transit mobility at about $16.43 per capita for the full 700,000; Austin’s, $97 for its full 1,700,000. Interestingly, Austin’s operating budget per capita is six times Columbia’s, about where the bus services compared almost 20 years ago.
Javers presented Columbia City Council with three bus systems: existing, near term, and long term.
Existing was identified as the $11.5 million system serving 250,000 people among our 700,000 total in area population. But as a percentage of the Richland County population, the people served by CMRTA come to 67 percent of Richland County. For now, annual boardings are 2.3 million, about what SCANA carried each year 1992–2002, after driving down the ridership from about twice that in 1982.
What’s possible in only six months, near term recommendations include actually reducing the number of buses from 36 to 35, but the route structure will be greatly altered for more population density coverage and thereby more efficiency — putting the buses where the people are, in other words, including St. Andrews and Harbison on weekends. Service frequency will move from mostly one–hour waits to 30–minute waits at the stops. Operating costs will climb only $100,000 from $11.5 million to $11.6 million.
Once full funding has been reached, once a one–cent sales tax is dedicated to worker mobility, long term recommendations boost the operating budget to $32.34 million and reduce the average wait for a bus to 15 minutes. The number of buses, express buses, vans, and cutaways totals 75. Higher frequency and more reliability breeds greater ridership. The projected annual boardings can come up to 5.4 million, about what was the total annual ridership under SCANA in 1982. The really impressive number, though, is the projected percentage of county population served, 90 percent.
To achieve the evolution of the greater Columbia bus system from existing to near term and on to long term recommendations and an annual operating budget of $32.34 million, the one–cent sales tax must be approved in a referendum this fall. That should pull together $50 million every year to start, which meets the long term obligations.
By then, the fare box should come to $5.64 million annually. Federal funds are expected to reach $8.07 million. State sources could hit a half–million dollars. The total revenue take comes to $14.21 million, but the annual operating budget is planned for $32.34 million. So that leaves $18.13 million to come out of the one–cent sales tax. And the sales tax annual collection of maybe $50 million means almost $32 million for worker mobility purposes other than the bus system’s annual budget.
If the one–cent sales tax dedicated to worker mobility fails, the bus system fails. Shuts down.
Austin’s startup in 1989 Council member Rickenmann asked if the bus system could run for no charge, for free, like Pickens County. It was suggested the Austin experiment of 1989 be investigated.
The Austin bus system in the late 1980s was in poor shape, but the population voted for a one–cent sales tax and for an entirely new and expanded transit system, including the real possibility of light–rail transit. To dodge criticism while the bus system was completely revamped, the buses ran for free for five quarters, 15 months.
The Austin bus ridership went from something like five million annually to 30 million. After the 15 months, the market–driven fare in 1990, at the time probably one dollar, was put into play. And the bus ridership fell the next year to 25 million or thereabouts. Point being, the Austin system raised its ridership from five million to 25 million in two years.
Council member Gergel worried about downtown mobility, a bus loop through the highest concentration of people in South Carolina. A downtown loop was proposed in 1991, and the possibility of an honest interest was expressed by Gergel.
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