CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — Changes are coming to Coast RTA — some sooner than others.
Coast RTA is not currently collecting fares because of the high number of COVID-19 cases in the area. The goal is to limit person-to-person interaction. Officials said ridership is up this month as a result of the free rides, but the pause in fare collection is only temporary until new cashless fare boxes are implemented.
Coast RTA is also making service adjustments to four routes (15N, 15S, 16 and 17) beginning Sept.19 to account for a shortage of drivers and late buses, according to Brian Piascik, the Coast RTA general manager and CEO.
Piascik said the changes will improve the quality of service on those routes and that Coast RTA is working on getting more drivers.
“We’ve got a little bit of relief coming,” Piascik said. “We’ve got a driver training this fall, and we’re also implementing an internal CDL program that will help some of our non CDL drivers to get a CDL. It strengthens what they can do for us, and they can get more hours that way for all of the certifications that you need.”
In the long term, Coast RTA has a list of changes it wants to make to improve and expand service. One of the biggest needs is a new maintenance facility. The current one in Conway is too small, according to Piascik. Buses have to be lifted outside to access the underbody.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of a new facility and other system upgrades is securing the funding. Piascik estimates a new maintenance facility would cost between $18 million and $25 million. He said Coast RTA’s annual operating budget is close to $6 million.
“We have a serious funding issue,” Piascik said. “First of all, all of our existing sources are based on the permanent population, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for us to build tourist-based services on funding that was on the backs of residents. So we need funding that is supported by both permanent residents as well as tourists so that we have a good nexus between our funding and the types of services that we’re running.”
Coast RTA ridership in 2021 is estimated to be about 70% of what it was before the pandemic. Between 2015 and 2019, ridership increased by 32%. Piascik said Coast RTA was on the verge of being shut down in 2014 and that the increase in ridership shows the need for the system and planned improvements.
Piascik’s endgame is a comprehensive bus system that serves area residents and tourists alike. He said the two types of service can co-exist to benefit one another.
He said the long-term vision is to get 50 to 60 buses to transport people to jobs, and then another 50 to 60 buses that would be for tourists.
That would require more buses than what Coast RTA currently operates. Piascik said the transit authority is “woefully undersized.” Other regions with the same population pull out about 50 buses a day. Locally, there’s only 19 pulled out daily.
The shortest frequency of any bus route in the network is one hour. With more buses, Coast RTA could add more routes but also shorten wait, and ultimately, travel times. Piascik said cost is the biggest factor holding back frequency. He said it costs $280,000 a year to put a bus on a road. It would double the cost of a route to do a 30-minute frequency.
Piascik added that there is a constant push and pull between system coverage and frequency. He said Coast RTA has to lean more toward coverage.
Aside from a larger bus network, the Coast RTA also wants to invest in senior-based transportation and a van pool program. Piascik said one idea is for anyone over the age of 60 to get free and on-demand transportation.
“It’s the fastest population sector in terms of growth in the region, and it’s only going to get bigger, and we need to be able to get them to places where they need to go,” Piascik said.
A van pool program would be subsidized by Coast RTA and would allow for more direct service. One person would be able to drive up to a dozen people to work. About 45 van pools would cost the same as one bus route.
Becky Ryon, North coast office director of the Coastal Conservation League, said the group supports investments in public transit because everyone stands to benefit.
“If we increase public transportation, we’ll be able to increase the accessibility for workforce,” Ryon said. “Of course the environmental factor that I care about, reducing the number of cars and increasing public transportation, will reduce pollutants in the air and in the water, so we’ll have cleaner air and better water quality.”
Ryon said Horry County needs to shift its focus from road projects to public transit projects. She pointed to the proposal of how Horry County intended to spend funds from the American Rescue Plan, noting that road projects were going to get more than 25 times more in funding than the Coast RTA. The plan for how to spend the money has been sent back to the drawing board.
“I would love to see a greater balance of those things,” Ryon said. “There’s only so much we can do with roads and widening roads. If we add more lanes, it’s actually going to increase the amount of traffic.”