Some of the county's major employers say they hope a new state transportation program will help solve one of Howard County's perennial job problems: getting entry-level workers from Baltimore to jobs in Howard County.
The program, described by its manager as "designer transit," helps link employers with private transportation services.
It could be particularly helpful in Howard County, where there islimited public transportation.
The Mass Transit Administration's "Access to Jobs" program will use $550,000 in federal and state grants to help pay for transportation between the city and suburbs.
Theprogram provides employers with a list of private transportation services and also pays 34 1/2 cents per mile for vans and 23 cents a mile for cars and mini-vans.
Rob Klein, the project's manager and MTAplanner, estimated that, with the subsidy, employers' share might average about $6 a day per rider.
While some employers might split that cost with employees, the employer must commit to covering the cost to be approved for the program, Klein said.
So far, only a handful of Howard County employers have expressed interest in the program,which was inaugurated last month, Klein said.
Like several major county employers interviewed, Mary Brewer, Human Resources manager atSmelkinson Sysco wholesale food distributor in Jessup, said she had not heard of the program, but is interested.
Brewer said the 480-employee company has problems getting people to work its 8:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift because the regular MTA bus down Route 1 does not run atthose times.
The lack of transit has been a key obstacle as the company has tried to hire for jobs on that shift, she said.
"As soon as people call and find out we're in Jessup, they say, 'Fine, I don't have a way to get there anyway.' "
Daniel Baker, president of Tate Access Floors on Montevideo Road in Jessup, is having similar problems.
"Bus schedules seem to run only for people who have a 9-to-5 job," he said.
"We work shift-work out here, and one of the things we noticed in the past is that the bus schedule that runs down Route 1 frequently doesn't run when the shifts end."
The steel flooring manufacturer's first summer shift starts at 6 a.m., Baker said. But the first of MTA's "Laurel Flyer" buses from Baltimore does not arrive in Jessup until 6:30 a.m.
Dealing with shifts that don't jibe with fixed transit schedules is just the sort of problem the Access to Jobs program was designed to solve, said Klein.
"It really is designer transit. It's no longer one size fits all."
Smaller companies that do not have enough riders -- Klein estimates about 10 would make a service viable -- can join with other small businesses to get the subsidy.
Existing services, or services with employer-owned buses or vans, are not eligible for the program unless they expand or change significantly, Klein said.
Before the Access to Jobs kickoff March 15, some employers became aware of the program through individual bus companies, such as Baltimore's Yellow Transportation Co.
Sofar, however, the few Howard County companies contacted have yet to sign a contract.
At the Applied Physics Laboratory near Columbia about 30 cleaning employees sought to start service from Baltimore.
Two of those workers, Margaret E. Williams and her husband, Samuel, have missed more days than they can remember, including an entire week, because they were unable to commute 30 miles from their home in Baltimore to the laboratory.
"We had a New Yorker, a Chevrolet, a Cadillac, two or three vans that went kaput on us," Mrs. Williams said,adding that she felt fortunate that their 1978 Lincoln Continental Mark IV that they bought for $500 two months earlier was still running.
That was Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Mark IV broke down and the Williams were forced to car pool.
Tomorrow one of them may have to miss work because the one person they can get a ride with only has one extra seat.
Ann Seymour, group supervisor of the laboratory's General Maintenance Group, said the Williams' problems are typical of entry-level workers who cannot afford reliable transportation.
The Williams and their fellow commuters have been interested in the Access to Jobs program, but they balked at paying the $8 a day per rider that Yellow wanted on top of the MTA subsidy.
Mrs. Williams said she would be able to afford about half of that to guarantee transportation to work.
"We're looking for them (employees) to be self-supporting," said Seymour, who added that her employees are looking into getting the laboratory to purchase its own bus, which could be used for other purposed during the workday.
At Chaselle Inc., an educational and arts and crafts products distributor, management was ready topay half of what it would have cost for service for each of 15 workers to travel from downtown Baltimore to the company's Columbia warehouse, said Al Francis, corporate director of human resources.