By Stan Welch
Efforts to address the funding issues confronting the Clemson Area Transit (CAT) bus continued Monday as the Anderson County Planning and Public Works Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Cindy Wilson, met to discuss various funding options.
The problem is becoming pressing, as the federal funding that originally established the bus system which serves customers between Anderson and the Clemson University campus is expiring. That dwindling funding was acknowledged by Councilwoman Wilson, who expressed the Council’s commitment to finding supplementary funding.
“One problem is that we have two bus systems, operating under two separate contracts. We have the CAT bus and we have the Electric City bus system, which operates the Homeland Park route,” said Wilson.
Committee member Councilman Tom Allen asked if accurate numbers concerning the number of riders and the operations costs were available. “I think a lot of people are working with different numbers.” Ms. Rhonda Sloan, who is involved in the administration of the grant funds, reported that the CAT bus transported 148,608 passengers last year, at a cost of $178,400 a year.
The Homeland Park route, operated by the Electric City system, transported 38,351 people at a cost of $109,647. Those operating costs do not include an additional $68000 a year in administrative costs.
Allen elicited from Sloan the information that a rider is counted each time he or she boards a bus. “So we don’t really know how many people we carry, just how many times someone gets on. One person could get on four or five times a day, is that correct?”
Despite her lack of status as a member of the committee, District Two Councilwoman Gracie Floyd, whose district is primarily served by the two bus systems, was on hand and repeatedly participated in the discussion. She clearly thought that the funding should be easy to find.
Wilson, a frequent political opponent of Floyd’s in the twelve years since both were elected, allowed Floyd a great deal of leeway early in the meeting; a courtesy that Floyd fully exploited. Floyd, who distributed lapel stickers in support of the bus before the meeting, argued that students and senior citizens need the economical transportation, while also pointing out that 54% of the riders on the CAT bus are working people going to work.
In 2003, a federal grant of $2.9 million was obtained and used to create the bus system. As of June 30 of next year, the end of the current fiscal year, approximately $74,000 will remain.
Two factors exacerbate the situation. First is the fact that a new bus will also soon have to be purchased. The current bus is ten years old and transportation director Holt Hopkins says that the feds won’t let the county surpass the replacement date by too much. The county’s share of the cost of a new bus to replace the current one would cost approximately $110,000.
Hopkins, however, argued that in order to accommodate the growing ridership, an articulated bus, costing $700,000, might be needed. Hopkins claimed that, at times, riders have to be left at some stops because the bus is too crowded.
The second circumstance is that the CAT bus collects no fares. Ridership is free. The CAT system refuses to charge a fare, even if a fare card were implemented. In response to a question by Councilman Allen, Hopkins said that the conditions of the grant don’t allow the charging of a fare, to which Wilson responded that the grant is about to expire and that the attendant prohibition on charging a fare may have to expire along with it.
“We will be negotiating a new contract it would appear; and if we are to provide the bulk of the funding, we may have to revisit some of these details,” said Wilson.
The Electric City system does charge a fifty cent fare but college students transferring from the CAT bus receive a free pass for the Anderson system. Seniors ride for a quarter on the town system and free otherwise.
Floyd, who repeatedly joined the discussion, reiterated her view that money was not the issue. “If this route didn’t serve my district and District five, we wouldn’t have this problem,” said Floyd, whose district is heavily black. Floyd pledged to find the funding saying that she would stand on the street corner with a bucket if need be.
Wilson then distributed documents which showed that Floyd has a current balance of $36,921 in her discretionary recreation fund, as well as an additional $66,704 in her paving fund, for a total of $103,625. Councilman Dunn, of District Five, has $78,762 in his paving fund and $28,664 in his recreational fund, for a total of $107,426.
Wilson suggested that perhaps in lieu of standing on the corner with a bucket that the representatives from the two districts most heavily served use some of their discretionary funds to address the problem. “Those of us in other districts have to take care of our constituents and their needs, just like you do, Ms. Floyd.”
Floyd attempted to once again control the debate but Wilson politely cut her off and moved on to an executive session that was next on the agenda, telling Floyd, “I turned the floor over to you Ms. Floyd. I didn’t turn the meeting over to you.”