Council shows mercy toward para-transit but finds no long-term solution to ailing bus system

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Columbia’s Para-Transit Service will escape significant cuts as part of the city budget for fiscal 2019, but Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas is disappointed that his council colleagues won’t do more to fix problems with the bus system.

The council voted unanimously on Tuesday to maintain rather than shrink the existing paratransit service area. City Manager Mike Matthes had proposed a significant reduction in his draft of the $453 million budget for fiscal 2019.

Mayor Brian Treece, along with a few council members, also indicated the council on Sept. 17 would likely vote down a bill that would increase the fare for paratransit rides from $2 to $3.

Beyond that, though, the council rejected several ideas Thomas had for supporting the bus system, including charging parking fees at Columbia Regional Airport.

Several residents spoke to the City Council on Tuesday night during a public hearing on the budget to oppose the fare increase and the service area reduction.

Cheryl Price, a member of the Public Transit Advisory Commission, who also uses a wheelchair, spoke about the need for paratransit and how the fare increase would greatly affect people’s lives, particularly those with lower incomes.

“For many that I know, if the fare is increased to $3, they will have to make a choice between going to medical appointments, grocery shopping, volunteering and just going to see a friend,” Price said.

Columbia resident Gretchen Maune, who is blind and serves on the city’s Disabilities Commission, also spoke firmly against the cuts.

“If you make these cuts, you are hurting your most vulnerable citizens,” Maune said.

Maune asked everyone in the council chambers who opposed the cuts to stand up, which a majority of them did. Others testified passionately against the cuts and the higher fares.

Thomas made lengthy remarks about the need for the city to dedicate more resources to the transit system, saying many people don’t use the service because it’s inadequate.

In the long term, Thomas said, the council faces “a moral decision” about whether to change the way it allocates transportation sales tax revenue.

As it stands, street projects get half of that revenue, while the transit system and Columbia Regional Airport split the other half.

Thomas said he’s received hundreds of emails from people who oppose cutting transit, but most of the people sending those messages don’t ride the bus.

Treece said the same. “If everyone who sends me an email would just buy a bus ticket, we wouldn’t have a funding problem,” he said.

Thomas proposed numerous amendments to try to shore up support for transit, some using budget reserves. He proposed spending $185,000 to provide flex route service in neighborhoods that stand to lose fixed routes when the cuts take effect on June 1.

Flex routes allow people to call the bus system a day ahead of time to arrange a ride to the nearest bus stop in neighborhoods where regular service is unavailable.

The $185,000 would be enough to provide flex routes for the last third of fiscal 2019. Beyond that, it would cost $550,000 per year. The council rejected the idea on a 5-2 vote.

Thomas also has been pushing for a $5 daily parking fee at Columbia Regional Airport, where parking is now free. He would use the proceeds to fund improvements to the bus system. His motion on Tuesday night to spend $25,000 on an “economic elasticity study” to determine whether parking fees would drive customers away from the airport died because it did not receive a second.

Thomas, who said an informal poll of those who read his council newsletter found that 70 percent supported charging for airport parking, later proposed doing so without the study. Only Sixth Ward Councilwoman Betsy Peters supported him.

“We are making the wrong moral decision... and a very bad one,” Thomas warned. He said the council is “kicking the can down the road.”

In other action at the meeting, the council decided to push back a $4 million renovation of the Grissum Building, which houses some Public Works Department operations, and instead funnel the money toward a new fire station in southwest Columbia. That move will allow the city to buy land that also would become the site of a municipal service station and salt dome.

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