COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - At the Sumter Street Transit Station, the colorful buses filled with friendly drivers and talkative riders seem almost non-stop.
But there's a problem according to Richland County Councilman Bill Malinowski and other watchdogs.
"We need to be prudent with the taxpayer and make sure they're spent wisely, efficiently, and effectively," Malinowski said.
Malinowski, the vice chair of Richland County Council, said COMET is definitely needed, but he's concerned by new numbers released by the county's penny program. They show ridership has grown from about 1.5 million boarding in 2012 to 2.5 million in 2017, but Malinowski says that stat leaves out an important detail.
"When you look at the budget from 2012, it was approximately 2.5 million dollars. The 2017 budget is, I believe, somewhere near 17 million dollars," said Malinowski.
That means, since 2012, ridership didn't even double as the budget multiplied almost seven times - and it's ballooned even more since last year to $24 million this year.
"Do you believe that you're providing the taxpayers a good value?" WIS asked John Andoh, the new director of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority.
"I believe that we are," he said. "I think that we can continue to fine-tune that and ensure that we're running the most efficient services possible."
Andoh said the program's budget has obviously grown since Richland's penny tax was passed in 2012, but he admits vast changes are needed to make this service more efficient - and friendlier to taxpayers. He took over as director just 13 weeks ago.
Andoh said he'll look to trim fat mainly by retiring routes that aren't being used.
"If we're going to be successful, we have to make sure that the routes that we design make sense for the riders and make sense for the demographics," he said.
Malinowski will be watching COMET's future closely. Councilman Jim Manning isn't as concerned.
"The fact that people that don't have cars and are less fortunate than other folks in terms of their income are able to now ride the bus to church, that's important to me. I find value in that," Manning said.
COMET's director, Andoh, said he'll be embarking on a "listening tour" over the next two months to get a better idea of what to do with the service going forward. He plans to visit neighborhoods all over the area.