URTA by any other name HOWARD COUNTY

January 07, 1993

What is URTA?

That question, most assuredly, has been asked numerous times by Howard residents who have witnessed the nifty mini-buses that cruise around the county and bear the URTA name. The fact that the acronym does not immediately suggest what it is should not diminish URTA at all. It is one of the most important public services in the county and deserves the praise it recently received when the Transportation Association of Maryland chose it as the outstanding para-transit system of 1992.

What URTA stands for is Urban Rural Transportation Alliance, an equally ambiguous title with which the organization was tagged 15 years ago, when it was created. It provides provide transportation for thousands of senior citizens, the disabled and low-income residents who otherwise would be without a ride. This year, URTA and its fleet of 21 buses is expected to log in about 95,000 passenger trips to senior centers, jobs, doctors' appointments and grocery stores.

It's a service that seldom gets the kind of attention it deserves, unless, of course, someone is suddenly in need of it. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that demand for URTA is already racing ahead of the service's ability to meet it.

In 1990, 16,738 people over the age of 60 resided in Howard, according to the county's Office on Aging. By the year 2000, the number will increase by half, to 25,765. No one is certain how many will need services such as URTA. And while the number of disabled and low-income clients is also expected to increase, no one is certain what the demand among these groups will be, either.

Most of the funding for URTA comes from county government, an institution suffering from the shrinking-pie syndrome. This year, the county put $1 million into URTA, but that amount is not expected to increase in the near future, URTA Executive Director Jeff Barnett said.

That is a pathetic commentary on priorities in Howard. More than the praise it has gotten recently, URTA needs to be supported for the good it does. As the demand for URTA grows, it is incumbent upon Howard officials to devise a plan -- perhaps with a mix of public and private funds -- to meet the needs of the county's elderly and others who cannot provide transportation for themselves.

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