More than half of Coast RTA’s buses can’t be driven and just six are considered reliable, according to a report agency officials released this week.
The Conway-based transit agency’s headquarters is also in disrepair, a fact highlighted during a recent inspection by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
“It’s catastrophic at this point,” said Felicia Beaty, Coast’s deputy general manager. “We don’t have enough buses that we can rely on to pull out on a day to day basis.”
Of the agency’s 41 vehicles, only 18 are in service, according to a report Beaty presented to the Coast board Wednesday. Most of those vehicles have also experienced mechanical problems, she said, noting that only six buses in the entire fleet are considered dependable.
“That’s terrible,” said board member Kitty D’Angelo.
On top of the problems with the aging fleet, Coast is also repairing buses in a crumbling maintenance hub that was flagged by FTA inspectors last month.
Every three years, the federal agency comes to Coast to evaluate the bus service.
When the FTA visited Coast three years ago, inspectors noted four findings, said Julie Norton-Dew, Coast’s interim general manager. This year, the report contained 17 findings.
The FTA’s most pressing concerns involve bus maintenance. Inspectors found problems with Coast’s vehicle maintenance schedule, as well as issues with the repair site.
To illustrate the severity of the situation, Coast staff took board members on a tour of the maintenance shop Wednesday. They showed them a crumbling floor in the bay, which they said is showing signs of sinking.
“I’m afraid it’s going to collapse and we’re going to have someone in here,” Norton-Dew said, referring to the maintenance pits that workers descend into to repair buses.
Another challenge for the maintenance department is that it’s understaffed, officials said. Coast has six mechanics, but there are eight budgeted positions.
Beaty said the agency has been searching for Class A diesel mechanics, but those are hard to find. She said the organization has gotten so desperate that Coast plans to place “help wanted” signs at local auto parts stores. They’re also putting ads on buses.
“We’re going to try to recruit as much as we can,” she said.
Norton-Dew said she knew there were problems with the buses and the building — some items were noted in the FTA’s 2011 report — but she didn’t know how bad conditions in the maintenance department were.
Coast mechanics also use paper work orders instead of an electronic system, something that surprised the inspectors who spent more than two days at Coast’s headquarters.
Bernard Silverman, who chairs the Coast board, said those inspectors explained just how outdated the agency’s maintenance program is.
“He didn’t exactly say that we’re hopeless,” Silverman said. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”
When Horry County officials increased funding for Coast three years ago, Norton-Dew said the bus service poured much of that money into launching new services rather than addressing capital needs.
Last year, Coast spent nearly $450,000 renovating the building. Most of the money came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Those renovations, however, didn’t address the problems in the maintenance department.
Coast officials said they’re not sure where the agency will find the money to construct another building.
“If you’re talking about getting a new building, we’re talking about years,” D’Angelo said. “It’s not like we can say, ‘Oh, well, we want to do this,’ and you get a building in a couple of months.”
One idea floated by board members Wednesday was seeking money from RIDE III, the county’s next road-building program.
“It would be a dream come true to be some small percentage on their referendum,” Silverman said. “That really helped the Columbia and Charleston referendums pass when they put transit, they put green spaces, they put roads altogether. … It really helped them to broaden their base.”
If approved in 2016, RIDE III would set up a one-cent sales tax that could be used for road improvements and transportation needs. The program’s predecessor, RIDE II, expired in the spring.
A committee of local leaders is meeting Aug. 14 to begin preparing a list of projects they hope will be considered for the final list, which is created by a six-members sales tax commission and approved by Horry County Council.
Coast board member Gary Loftus, who also sits on County Council, cautioned his transit agency peers to be judicious in their requests.
“Be careful,” he said. “If you ask for too much, you’ll end up getting nothing.”
Loftus, however, did say he could see there being support for a new transportation center.
“Quite honestly, I don’t think anybody would object to a new building,” he said, “especially if it were in Myrtle Beach.”
Coast officials have discussed building a new transit center in Myrtle Beach for years. They had pursued a feasibility study for such a facility, but Coast leaders failed to follow guidelines for using federal money on the project and found themselves on the hook for about $44,000.
However, Coast officials on Wednesday voted to allocate $35,000 in their budget to continue with the study, which some officials said must be done if they ever hope to have a new headquarters.
The maintenance department woes are just the latest challenge for Coast RTA, which has seen turmoil in recent months.
Earlier this year, state officials billed the agency more than $320,000 after Coast failed to complete a bus shelter and signage program.
The agency’s troubles led to the firing of CEO Myers Rollins on April 30.
Charles D. Perry • 488-7258