Columbia will have greener buses, clearer history and more scooters following Monday night’s City Council meeting.
The council voted to purchase three new electric buses, install 21 historic markers on the African-American Heritage Trail and approved an agreement to bring 500 additional scooters into the city.
In the last meeting before voters chose to retain Mayor Brian Treece for a second term had little that was controversial. The next meeting will be to swear in the winner and begin new terms for Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala and Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas, who are running unopposed.
The new buses will be no-emission electric vehicles purchased with $294,000 from the state Department of Natural Resources. The grant received in 2018 came from the state’s $6.25 million share of Volkswagen’s $14.9 billion settlement with the federal government over emission cheating on its diesel cars.
The city did not have the money to purchase electric buses before receiving the grants, and leasing them instead “drained our operating budget,” public works director Dave Nichols said.
Fifth Ward council member Matt Pitzer pointed out that some of the electric buses had maintenance issues. The city leased four buses from Los Angeles, and the buses were not suited for Columbia’s terrain, so the company in Los Angeles has agreed to replace them, Nichols said.
The three new buses will be custom-designed for Columbia and should arrive in a year, he said.
Under the terms of the Volkswagen settlement, vehicles replaced with the grants must be destroyed and replaced with zero emission vehicles. The settlement and matching funds will buy replacements for buses built in model year 2001.
The African-American Heritage Trail has been in the works since 2011 and will eventually highlight 39 locations in downtown Columbia that are important to the city’s African American history. The Sharp End Heritage Committee, named after Columbia’s black business district during the segregation era, raised $52,500 in private donations over the past four years to buy the 21 new plaques. About $2,100 from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department budget will be used to pay for the markers’ installation.
The committee dedicated its first plaque in May 2015, recognizing Sharp End. This was the committee’s first goal, and developing the trail was the second, committee chairman James Whitt said at the council meeting.
“We were looking at fostering the growth of minority-owned businesses as part of our strategic plan, and one of the things we thought we needed to do was take a look backwards, see what we’ve done in the past and see how that interacted with the future,” Whitt said.
Eight plaques have been installed so far, and city staff estimated four more will be installed in 2019. The two most recent plaques were dedicated in September 2018, one at the Douglass Park and Pool on Providence Avenue and one where early 20th century entrepreneur Annie Fisher’s house stood on Park Avenue.
“It’s very inspirational to see that the part of Columbia I grew up in, segregated Columbia, is finally being recognized,” committee member Barbra Horrell said.
The council also approved an interim operating agreement with Spin, an electric scooter company and a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company. It differs from other ride-sharing companies because it asks for cities’ permission before launching, Spin head of government partnerships Kyle Rowe told the council.
Columbia already has a contract with Bird scooters, which arrived in the city in August 2018. The council approved the operating agreement with Bird in November.
Third Ward council member Karl Skala was the sole dissenting vote on both agreements. He recently attended a forum on disabilities in which people “had serious concerns” about scooters in Columbia’s streets, he said.
“I just don’t believe we’ve done due diligence to really take a look at other cities’ successes and failures,” Skala said.
Columbia residents Eugene Elkin and Barbara Jefferson echoed Skala’s concerns about the impact of scooters on people with disabilities.
“They clutter up the streets and block the ramps for people in wheelchairs,” Jefferson said. “In my neighborhood, too often they’re just parked in the streets.”
Bird’s first quarterly payment to the city was due near the end of March, but the city has not yet received it, city counselor Nancy Thompson said. City staff has had conversations with Bird about making the payment this month, she said.
Treece requested a compliance report on when the payment was due, whether Bird is violating its contract with the city and how it can fix its error.
The council approved the creation of a seven-member task force to work with a consultant to create a broadband plan for Columbia businesses and to look into adding more fiber optic internet offerings throughout the city. The task force will include community stakeholders, city staff members and at least one council member.
Skala said he hopes to be considered for the task force, and Fourth Ward council member Ian Thomas said his constituents have told him they are interested in participating.