Waiting for the bus

September 20, 1993

Carroll County's commissioners are undertaking a survey to see what residents think about public transportation and if they would support a county bus system. It's a worthwhile poll, but the ultimate decisions on creating a county public transportation system must be based on more than the public's hope or wish.

As so many public transit systems in Maryland and elsewhere have found, the operating costs are enormous. Finding a balance between an acceptable fare that generates enough revenue to cover even half the operating expenses of a bus system continues to be a formidable challenge.

The Mass Transit Administration, which serves the Baltimore metropolitan area with subway, light rail and bus networks, is well-established with a concentrated urban customer base that should make it cost-efficient. Yet the MTA struggles every year to keep fare box income at the 50 percent of expenses level required by the state legislature that heavily subsidizes it. That's 50 percent of operating costs, not including infrastructure and equipment.

For years, the only system available in the county has been Carroll Transit System Inc., a private, non-profit organization that has provided on-call service mainly for senior citizens and the physically disabled, although it is available to anyone. But its limited van service must be booked at least a day in advance, which does not lend itself to the needs of a broader clientele.

The Carroll Transit lifeline service, like others run by the departments of aging in various counties, is important to the community. It provides 5,000 rides a month to people. But that is not the same as a regular public bus service. Carroll County also has some local cab service, which has its own limitations.

While results of the questionnaires distributed to 25,000 residents will not be available until the end of this month, the county government has already said that it does not intend to finance a full transportation system. Mini-buses, instead of full-size buses, would be more appropriate for Carroll's initial needs, officials suggest.

The idea for the transportation survey arose as a result of an audit of Carroll Transit, which depends heavily on county funds to cover its operating costs. Commissioners questioned why more people were not using its 17 vehicles. We hope that the answers to help define the future of public transit in this county will be found in the public's response to the survey.

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