Roughly a year and a half after previous service ended, Columbia's COMET bus system has restarted a route that runs from downtown Columbia out to Newberry and back, with several stops along the way.
COMET Executive Director John Andoh recently announced the return of the route to Newberry. A small county with a population of about 34,000, Newberry is about 41 miles northwest of Columbia via I-26.
The COMET previously operated a route to Newberry from 2003-09. Then, from 2009-18, Newberry's Council on Aging operated the service. Andoh says the route came to an end in January 2018 because of a lack of funding.
But now it's back, with COMET using a smaller 22-passenger bus — with Wi-Fi, bike racks, cellphone charging ports and more — for the route, which is known as the 93X-I-26 Express.
"This came at the request of some of our board members, who were concerned about the fact that the previous commuter service had been discontinued," Andoh tells Free Times. "It appeared that it [previously] had some pretty good ridership and a loyal ridership base. So, we were able to put together some funds to reinstate the service on a one-year pilot."
Andoh says it will cost just more than $105,000 to operate the route for a year. About half of that money will come from the federal government, 15 percent is expected to come from passenger fares, and the balance from Richland and Lexington counties. The bus boss says the COMET will re-evaluate the Newberry route after a year, to see if it is viable to continue. He said expanding the service would likely require funding from Newberry County.
Stops along the new route include Newberry, Little Mountain, the Samsung plant in Newberry County, Chapin, Ballentine, Prisma Health Baptist Parkridge, the Harbison Walmart, Prisma Health Richland and downtown Columbia.
Pushing to rekindle service to Newberry fits the modus operandi of Andoh, who has been COMET's director for just more than a year. He's stressed the need to expand commuter service in the Midlands, and he's taken opportunities to enlarge the bus system's presence outside the city of Columbia and Richland County. For instance, COMET restarted routes to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in Lexington County, and now runs buses to Lexington County industries like Nephron and Amazon. The free Soda Cap Connector also now has a route that goes over the bridge into West Columbia and Cayce.
Andoh says COMET is exploring a once-a-week pilot route to Batesburg-Leesville, one that would run from there to Lexington and Columbia. The purpose would be to give people there a weekly connection to county services, state services, shopping and more. He stresses details about the Batesburg-Leesville route are still under discussion.
"I think they are interested in more commuter service, and I stressed to them that any service beyond a one-day-a-week pilot is going to require a contribution from the town," Andoh says of the prospective Batesburg route.
In other COMET business, Andoh recently presented the bus system's 2020 budget to Columbia City Council. At about $29 million, it's about 13 percent larger than a year ago, with much of its anticipated new revenue coming from passenger fares and a boost in funding from the federal government.
The new budget hikes COMET's advertising expenses by about 156 percent, to $256,000.
"We just need to increase awareness and promote the transit system more," Andoh says. "This is the opportunity to do so. You generally spend one percent of your operating budget on transit marketing, and that's about one percent of our budget."