Bob Schneider, Executive Director, CMRTA
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(see below for a written transcription of the interview)
This region has seen a prolonged period of instability in terms of its bus system. Without a dedicated funding source, the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority has had to cut back on the delivery of services. This year, the CMRTA launched Vision: 2020, a new direction and approach to public transportation in the Midlands that will create a more innovative, connected and accessible bus system for the region.
On November 6, 2012 Richland County voters will have the opportunity to vote yes or no for the Transportation Penny.
Bob Schneider, Executive Director, CMRTA, talks about Vision 2020 and the importance of the upcoming vote.
Here is the transcription of the interview.
A Conversation with Bob Schneider, Executive Director, CMRTA
What are the biggest challenges that your organization has faced over the past decade?
Our biggest challenge has been the lack of stability. Even though public transportation has been running in this region in some form or another for the past 100 years, the Authority (CMRTA) itself is only about 10 years old. SCE&G did a great job running the system, however their mission was first foremost to be a utility, to provide power to the region. In order to elevate public transportation (especially mass transit) and to make it more broad-based for the community, the effort was made ten years ago to transition this organization from the utility ownership to an Authority. Right out of the gate, everyone knew that the trust fund that was set up for transit would only get us so far. Study after study indicated that we needed to create some type of stabilized, dedicated funding.
Talk about the past several years in terms of operations
We used to be $11 million a year organization; today, we are a $9 million a year organization. Operationally, we removed $2.5 million worth of service a year off the streets of Columbia. We cut service on Sunday, shaved are Saturday's back by two thirds, and reduced our weekday service by one third. We used to operate service to 10:30 at night; now we are off the streets by 7:15 pm. We eliminated two routes completely. Most services run on the hour, not on the half hour as they should. The transportation service that we offer is inadequate, and as such, it is hard to play a vibrant role in the community.
Paint a picture of the bus system under the proposed penny sales tax – a dedicated source of funding for CMRTA.
What Richland County has proposed would provide us $13.7 million. Our budget of $9M is not 100% supplied by the city, the county, and the state, but also includes passenger fares and federal money that we receive for maintenance. $13.7M more than doubles what we receive from the local government and importantly, allows us to go after federal grants where we pay 20% of the total infrastructure investment and the federal government provides the remaining 80%. Federal grants represent a huge opportunity for us.
A great example is compressed natural gas. It takes about $2.5 million to build a new station and about a half million dollars to buy a new bus that run on compressed natural gas. Why do it? Number one, it’s a domestic fuel so it increases American jobs. We are not paying for shipping oil all the way across the ocean to then pump it through a massive pipeline to then put into a vehicle. Right now, there's a natural gas boom industry in the Dakota's as well as Wyoming and Montana.
Secondly, we are currently paying $3.35 a gallon for diesel fuel; compressed natural gas costs about $1.95 for the equivalent gallon. That could save about a million dollars a year in operating costs, money that could put back on the streets for customers.
We can't make that kind of long-term transition if we can't afford $2.5 million for the infrastructure and the money to buy the busses. That’s just one example of how the opportunity to use the match money from the local dollars would help us bring in new technologies.
But it’s not just new stations and busses. Brand new website, brand new bus stop signs, brand-new shelters, new routes, our most popular routes getting high-frequency service, new schedules with updated information, and eventually downtown circulators.
Talk about ridership. What is it now? What could it be in the future if you were able to secure a dedicated source of funding?
About a year ago, we were at around 16 passengers per hour for our whole system. With the service changes that we put in place, we are now hovering at around 19 passengers per hour. We now have a more productive service, but unfortunately, we dropped overall ridership from about 1.5 million passengers a year down to about 1 million. If you go back a few year before the whole stability issue came up, ridership was in the 2 million passengers a year range. People rode our busses and they rode them frequently.
What we could expect going forward with a dedicated funding source is 30 passengers per hour on major routes. I think we have a couple of routes that could start to see 35-40 passengers per hour, especially if we could tap into the university market. Realistically, we could be in the range of 4-5 million passengers a year within five to seven years representing a quadrupling service and a 1,000% increase in ridership.