It’s Your Money: Coast RTA aims to become a ‘big boy transit’ system but money remains a challenge

It’s Your Money: Coast RTA aims to become a ‘big boy transit’ system but money remains a challenge

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Years after Coast RTA came under fire for its financial management, the new CEO said the organization is continuing its work to establish a track record of being good stewards of public dollars.

In the early 2000’s, the organization was $750,000 in the red and its CEO sent to prison for public corruption. Then in 2014, a WMBF Investigation dug into controversy over the organization’s spending of taxpayer money. At the time, the CEO was under fire from Horry County officials for ‘mismanaging’ projects, including a failed shelter program and a multi-modal transportation center. In 2014, CEO Myers Rollins was fired.

Now, five years later, CEO Brian Piascik said the organization is close to cleaning up the basics and ready to begin focusing on upgrades.

“I don’t think there’s really been any mismanagement necessarily, it’s the strategic investment,” Piascik said. "I got here and I knew what we needed to spend our money on and that’s probably the biggest change in the management.

Coast RTA has received clean audits for the past two years and is now labeled as a low-risk auditee.

“I’m really proud of that. It shows that we are good stewards of public dollars and it’s going to save us some money,” Piascik said.

Coast RTA is also working toward fixing the last finding from a 2016 financial management oversight review. Piascik said this is the last year the organization will have to pay for the failed bus shelter program. The program cost the organization $377,000.

Multiple fleets have been replaced, two new routes added and ridership increased by 26%. With most of the corrections behind him, Piascik is ready to focus on the future.

“I joke with staff about becoming big boy transit,” Piascik said. “Every transit system in America pretty much has signs at their stop locations. We still operate on what’s called a flag stop system, so we don’t really have very much control on where people are getting on the bus.”

Part of this upgrade includes adding more than 400 signs to stops across the routes. Piascik explained the signs will increase safety along with visibility of Coast RTA while allowing the organization to collect data about where the system is being used the most.

According to Coast RTA’s budget, the signs cost around $321,000. So far only 40 signs have been installed.

The Coast RTA received an additional $1 million in funding from Horry and Georgetown County this past fiscal year, but the organization said more local funding is needed before services can be added or upgraded.

Horry and Georgetown County allocated $6.50 from each vehicle registered to be put toward the organization last year. This allocation added up to around $2.6 million dollars for Coast RTA.

Piascik said this allocation brought in $2.6 million, which was $1 million more than last year.

“Both counties have really helped us out tremendously,” Piascik said. “We went from discrepancy sources where we had to go every year in the budget process and ask for money from each of those entities.”

Piascik said this funding source is more reliable and allows room for growth. Local funding primarily is used to fund daily operational expenses like employee wages and bus maintenance.

Myrtle Beach also contributed close to $260,000 last year, according to the company’s budget.

With every registered car owner in the counties paying for the service, Piascik said the organization faces the increasing challenge of servicing more locations.

Piascik said places like North Myrtle Beach contribute to funding but there aren’t any routes in the city.

“They are contributing $80,000-$90,000 of the $2 million that we are getting from the county in that Road Use Fee. So, naturally if they are contributing to the system, they are going to want to use the service or get service and I agree with them but $80,000 does not come close to putting one bus on the road for a year,” he said.

He said it costs around $260,000 to $280,000 to operate one bus and more than one bus would be needed to start a new route in North Myrtle Beach.

Piascik said a study was conducted a few years ago about filling gaps throughout Horry County that found $4 million would be needed, which means Coast RTA would need about double the amount of local funding than it receives currently.

“I can provide more service. Certainly, people would use more service but we’re going to have to pay for it and its going to have to be done locally, so it’s just a challenge,” he explained. “I’m so grateful to both counties for doing what they did and now we need to go to the next step.”

Coast RTA may consider a referendum in the future to get the additional local funding needed.

“We’re still trying to establish that track record of being good stewards of public dollars and something that’s worthy of being invested in so that when we do go out to the public we can get a more sustainable amount of money and provide more service,” Piascik said.

Piascik said right now his biggest focus is on upgrading facilities. He said the Conway Maintenance Facility is from the 1940s. The organization also has one building in Myrtle Beach and two shelters in Georgetown County.

Coast RTA plans to spend around $1 million in the next year on a study that will identify the ideal locations for new facilities. Piascik explained the study will allow the organization to establish a strong applications to earn federal dollars for the project.

In addition to local taxpayer money, Coast RTA receives federal grants and state funding. For the 2019 fiscal year, the organization had a $5 million operating budget and an additional $2.6 million in capital project financing. The organization is currently in the process of creating its 2020 fiscal budget.

“Public transportation is a critical asset for any community and we could do more, we have the capabilities we just need to find the right funding mix. I hope over the last four years we’ve shown significant improvements in establishing that track records of becoming a good investment,” Piascik said.

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