County settlement considered dense enough for bus service

March 29, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

In two years, Howard County transportation planners would like to see buses take commuters from Columbia's Town Center to commuter rail stations and make regular trips to Savage and Elkridge under a long-awaited transit plan unveiled last night.

After years as a bedroom community so spread out that scheduled bus service wouldn't work, the county now has enough population and employment within its borders to justify its own system, said Carl Balser, county transportation coordinator.

"We're hitting the critical mass where transit makes sense from a cost-benefit standpoint," he said.

That realization could be the break that the nonprofit Columbia Association has been waiting for.

The Columbia Association has run ColumBus since 1967. For the last 14 years, however, the association has sought to get out of the transit business, and has relied upon the county, state and federal governments for a larger and larger share of its expenses.

What the transit plan prepared by the Bethesda-based Ecosometrics Inc. for county transportation planners calculated was that the county, or an independent transportation authority, could provide expanded service for less than it costs ColumBus to do it.

The plan, presented to the county Public Transportation Board, says that using private contractors for bus service and combining fixed-schedule bus service with specialized transit for the elderly and disabled will reduce costs enough to make up for the loss of $182,000 the Columbia Association now spends on the system.

This fiscal year's operating budget for ColumBus is about $1 million, including $365,000 in federal subsidies, $205,000 in state subsidies, $90,000 in county money and $182,000 from the Columbia Association. The county now owns its eight buses.

Besides making up that shortfall, the new system would expand to reach all of the county's most heavily populated areas. ColumBus now serves most of Columbia, with one line reaching the county government office complex in Ellicott City.

The plan's rough outline of future routes shows two lines traveling down Routes 175 and 32, and stopping at the Jessup and Savage MARC commuter rail stations. Both stations are on MARC's Camden Line, which runs from Baltimore's Camden Station to Washington's Union Station.

New bus lines would also serve the county's new office building in Columbia by making a loop around the Gateway office complex at Route 175 and Interstate 95.

Other new lines could go up U.S. 1 from Route 103 to Montgomery Road to link homes and businesses in Elkridge with those in Columbia.

Although planners are intent on a new bus service for the county, they made it clear that they didn't intend for it to replace ColumBus.

"The county does not view this as taking over ColumBus. We view it as trying to set up a county system," Mr. Balser said, one that would serve all parts of the county with high transit needs equally.

Studies done in creating the plan showed, for instance, that Elkridge and Savage could produce the 15 bus trips per hour needed to make a bus service viable.

Viable doesn't mean that the service will pay for itself, Mr. Balser cautioned. He said planners would be satisfied if 30 percent of the system's cost could be covered by fares. ColumBus fares now cover about 18 percent of operating costs.

The Columbia Association won't divest itself of its bus system without some objection by county officials. Several members of the transportation board noted last night that they want the county executive and the County Council to be aware of the reason ColumBus existed in the first place.

Mr. Balser explained to them that in the mid-1960s, when Columbia's zoning was being considered, its developer, the Rouse Co., offered to provide a transit system.

Considering that, members said, the county ought to consider the possibility of requiring the Columbia Association, which runs recreational facilities and tends open space in Columbia, to pay for some of the new system's cost.

The transportation board will meet again at 7 p.m. April 19 to hear public comments on the plan, which is part of the county's Comprehensive Transportation Plan. In late April, the board will issue its recommendations to County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

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