Transit talks turn bumpy Misunderstanding surrounds request for riders' survey

August 09, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

County and Columbia Association officials are downplaying an apparent spat over transportation issues.

It was a misunderstanding, they say, which should not obscure the larger issue -- that the time for Howard County government to become a provider of public transportation is fast approaching.

"We've got to move in that direction," said Carl S. Balser, the county's chief transportation planner. "Economically, it makes sense, and socially it makes sense."

The impetus is twofold, Mr. Balser said. On the one hand, the county's employment base has expanded to the point where Howard is no longer a bedroom community. On the other, the state is requiring all employers of more than 100 people to devise a plan by 1996 for getting employees to use rapid transit or car pools between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.

To help comply with the state mandate, the county hired a consultant to evaluate transportation alternatives, including ColumBus, the transportation system run by the nonprofit Columbia Association that provides many public services in the unincorporated city.

Part of the evaluation consisted of a survey of ColumBus riders. Drivers were to ask passengers to fill out and return the surveys. When some drivers balked, the consultants blamed the association and complained to the county transportation board.

Those complaints sparked the ire of Association President Padraic M. Kennedy. He fired off a letter to County Executive Charles I. Ecker July 19, telling him that "when it came to our attention that a few bus drivers felt it was too difficult to conduct the survey while concentrating on safety, ColumBus management immediately rectified the situation and the survey was completed."

Mr. Ecker replied in a July 30 letter, saying the consultant was twice frustrated in an attempt to complete the survey and "has never before had to go to such unusual lengths to achieve valid survey data."

Friday, Mr. Ecker said it was all a misunderstanding. "CA did cooperate," he said. "One or two drivers failed to have the questionnaire completed, but CA does cooperate and Pat [Kennedy] was naturally upset" at the insinuation that the association had failed to help.

"It's a good idea to study transportation in an urbanizing area," Mr. Kennedy said Friday. "We are fully committed and share the same concern."

In his July 19 letter, Mr. Kennedy complained that the study might take years.

"I can't understand how any study could conceivably take [up to four years], particularly when private firms are interested in stepping in right now" to manage a public transportation system, he said. Mr. Kennedy had recommended that the county or a private contractor run a public transportation system in conjunction with a county transportation authority.

Although the county may eventually incorporate his suggestions, there are "too many factors to weigh without thoroughly understanding the relationship of all associated issues," Mr. Ecker told Mr. Kennedy. "It is for that reason that we have hired a . . . renowned transit consulting firm that can advise us on the most effective course of action."

Public transportation is just one aspect of a comprehensive transportation plan now being formulated, Mr. Balser said.

The public transportation part will deal with mass transit and the needs of special populations such as the poor, the elderly and the handicapped.

The other part of the plan will deal with highways.

One of the big questions still to be answered, Mr. Balser said, is what form the county transportation system ought to take.

"Right now, ColumBus is the only game in town," he said. If the county takes over the system, it could not, in all likelihood, provide the same level of service countywide that ColumBus provides in Columbia, because the county does not have the same sources of funding," he said.

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