City officials can submit a strengthened application for federal funds to help pay for a proposed bus transit system, thanks to a ordinance passed Monday night by the Rock Hill City Council.
The council voted 4-3 to approve the ordinance on second reading, allowing the city to enter into a lease purchase agreement, not exceeding $6.6 million, to buy buses and other related infrastructure.
Mayor Doug Echols and council members Ann Williamson, Sandra Oborokumo and Kathy Pender voted in favor of the ordinance.
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Council members Kevin Sutton, John Black and Jim Reno voted in opposition, arguing that the proposal does not use the right benchmarks to determine success. The dissenting council members said they wanted to see more research on population density and potential ridership before they could feel confident.
City staff members projected Monday that the bus plan would result in an estimated annual ridership of more than 213,000 passengers. They also projected an on-time performance goal of 90 percent systemwide.
City officials have long been touting the idea of a four-route, seven-bus transit system that could debut by fall 2018.
Several city leaders have supported the transit proposal, saying it could allow most residents more access to the city’s top growth areas, such as Knowlege Park near downtown, Cherry Road and Dave Lyle Boulevard.
Proponents say 80 percent to 85 percent of the annual cost would be paid by a federal grant.
The new ordinance does not obligate the city to purchase the buses. Rather, the ordinance is intended to bolster Rock Hill’s application to the Federal Transit Administration by demonstrating the city’s commitment to finance the project.
Leaders will apply for funds through the Urbanized Area Formula Program Assistance. The program makes federal resources available for urbanized areas (cities with a population of 50,000 or more) to help fund capital improvement projects like transit systems and crime prevention. Rock Hill has a population of around 70,000 people.
The project would annually cost $2 million to $2.5 million each of the first five years, city leaders say. Echols said Rock Hill likely would be responsible for $300,000 to $400,000 annually. The mayor said the city would look to form partnerships with local businesses to help cover the cost.
Rock Hill’s bus transit plan would include seven buses responsible for four routes around the city.
The buses would run 14 to 15 hours each day, with approximately 10 stops per route. Three of the routes would take about an hour to complete, while a shorter downtown route would take just 30 minutes.
Routes would include stops along Cherry Road, Dave Lyle Boulevard, Main Street and Herlong Avenue. Most of the bus routes encircle the Knowledge Park, or University Center, area near downtown.
One route will likely stretch from Piedmont Medical Center, down Constitution Boulevard and through downtown Rock Hill before passing through Fountain Park and servicing Saluda Street. Officials have expressed interest in extending that route, adding stops along S.C. 901, or Heckle Boulevard. It would serve as a connecter between Herlong Avenue and Saluda Street.
Such a route would be helpful to those wanting to reach York County Family Court, the county’s Social Services Department office and the Clinton College campus. A 2015 transportation study found that many of those living between Dave Lyle Boulevard, Saluda Street and Heckle Boulevard were without a vehicle.
Winthrop University is included in the transit plan.
About 40 percent of Winthrop students do not own cars, according to Winthrop President Dan Mahony. Both Winthrop and Piedmont Medical Center have signed letters indicating their willingness to financially support the operation.
Winthrop’s Social and Behavioral Research Lab recently conducted a survey for students, asking among other questions whether they would feel comfortable paying $35 per semester if that meant that most routes “come through the Winthrop campus.”
Here’s a breakdown of some of the answers, based on 984 responses. Of those polled:
▪ Nearly two-thirds (64.4 percent) of students responded they would be willing to pay a semester access fee to ensure bus routes would come through the campus
▪ Nearly three-quarters (74.3 percent) of the respondents had cars
▪ Around 75 percent said they would use the bus system to travel to businesses along Dave Lyle Boulevard, as well as downtown Rock Hill
The bus transit plan would be fare-free to the public.
Rock Hill officials say they’d like to use 35-foot electric buses much like the Proterra Catalyst, which they say will save nearly $500,000 in operating costs. Rather than needing constant gas fill-ups, the buses would be charged overnight.-
The concept would include the creation of a Free Rider app that would help track buses in real time and alert a rider to the estimated time of a bus at their stop.
In a recent poll of around 100 Rock Hill residents, 57 percent said they would be willing to pay a fare if it meant adding more stops or routes.