Leaders of county social service groups say local transportation programs for elderly, disabled and low-income residents are inadequate and could require overhauling to meet the growing needs of those groups.
The leaders, members of a task force created by County Executive Charles I. Ecker, will discuss the issue at a forum Sept. 12 and plan to file recommendations to Ecker later this fall.
"What we have right now is too much demand chasing too few resources. . . . Even with 30 percent increases in budget each year, we haven't been able to keep up with the increased demand," said Manus J. O'Donnell, director of the county Department of Citizen Services.
"Transportation for special populations has become an ever-increasingly important issue in Howard County."
Task force members are takinga broad look at transportation provided by and for 14 organizations and centers in the county that assist elderly, disabled and low-income residents. The services supply about 1,400 residents with rides to jobs, meals, church services, doctor's appointments and other destinations.
The 14 agencies collectively own 89 vehicles and use another 20 buses and vans operated by the county's strained specialized busservice, the Urban-Rural Transportation Alliance.
Since forming early last month, the task force has met every other week to determinethe level of demand and how to better coordinate operation of the 109 vehicles.
Even with its fleet of 40 vehicles, the county Association for Retarded Citizens still has difficulty getting members to jobs and services.
John Callanan, who runs ARC's Day Program, said his program, which helps members work in service-oriented jobs, cannotmeet its transportation demands.
Many job opportunities for members are in the U.S. 1 corridor, which is not served by ColumBus, the county's only public bus service.
"It's hard to say what actual demand is because people are turning away clients and haven't been keeping accurate records," O'Donnell said. "Part of the task force's job is to get a better handle on what the demand is."
There are a number of possible changes the task force could recommend, from further centralizing transportation under URTA to dividing vehicles and funds among the various agencies and letting them provide for themselves, O'Donnell said.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the county government budgeted nearly $700,000 to eight programs that provide specialized transportation. About $580,000 of that went to URTA.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker has supplied URTA with $306,490, enoughmoney for only half a year, and said he would reassess its budget after reviewing the task force's findings.
Richard Kirchner, chairman of both the task force and the county's Commission on Aging, said meeting the task force's Oct. 1 deadline for a report to the executivemay be difficult.
"We're still quite a ways from finalizing a draft report," he said. He urged people with specialized transportation needs to attend the Sept. 12 hearing at 7 p.m. in the Florence Bain Senior Center on Beaverkill Road in Columbia so they can give the taskforce a better idea of what their needs are. The group will begin meeting weekly next month.
The group also could suggest a more cleardivision of transportation responsibilities. O'Donnell said individual agencies could be assigned to provide their own job-related transportation or their own group transportation, while URTA could be reserved for individuals' use.
When ARC's Day Program cannot use URTA to get members to job sites, it uses its own fleet of 10 vehicles. It also uses its fleet to move workers between job sites during the day.
"Unfortunately URTA follows the Howard County schools for bad weather (cancellations)," forcing ARC to re-allocate its own vehicles oruse vehicles from the residential program, Callanan said.
When new jobs are found for individuals or new contracts are awarded to ARC,"URTA hasn't been real quick in adjusting their routes and schedules," he added, making it necessary for ARC to make temporary transportation arrangements.
The net effect, Callanan said, is that members are limited in their job opportunities and any other activities unless they can find transportation on their own.