Getting on Less Isn't Always Smart

COMMENT

April 02, 1995|By KEVIN THOMAS

It was part of the original dream that got, well, off track.

the early plans for Columbia, visionaries at the Rouse Co. proposed a commuter transportation system that centered on a gleaming monorail that would carry residents from their new homes to the city's downtown.

It had a space-age ring to it, perfectly suited to a new town that was itself supposed to be different than anything the country had seen.

Alas, it was science fiction.

The federal grant sought for the monorail went to West Virginia, and mass transit in Columbia took the more traditional route of a regular bus service -- and an inadequate system at that.

Ironically, this early shortcoming has in one sense made Columbia obsolete even in its relative youthfulness.

What is considered innovative today in urban planning would never omit a strong mass transit component, as occurred in Columbia. Despite its mini-villages, walking paths and convenient commercial centers, the city's design never conquered people's love affairs with their cars.

Time may redeem all, however. In the end, the growth spurred by Columbia could produce an improved transit system for all of Howard County. A consultant working for the county's transportation planners last week reported that Howard is now dense enough to support an expanded bus service, one that would not only link key locations in Columbia, but also areas in Ellicott City and Elkridge.

Most importantly perhaps is that consultants are suggesting an extension of bus service to Jessup and Savage, where commuters can connect with the MARC rail system that would carry them to Washington or Baltimore. Up to this point, commuters who wanted to abandon their cars were forced to rely on a hodgepodge of chartered services.

An expanded bus service might attract more users, saving wear and tear on the county's roads and the environment.

But don't get too excited. The consultants are proposing that the existing Columbus service continue operating with eight buses on limited schedules.

The service, however, would be expanded beyond the four routes currently operated, and would also emphasize transportation for the elderly and disabled.

While it would be an improvement over what exists today, it's no monorail. That vision died when the funds failed to come though.

Of course, we needn't look that far back to see plenty of evidence of how the flow of public money effects history.

Central to the debate about to erupt over funding for school construction in Howard County is the notion that today's savings may prove costly down the road; a pay-me-now or pay-me-later scenario.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker's proposed $93 million capital budget has some predictable consequences for the school system, alloting $9.3 million less than officials requested.

Mr. Ecker once again asserted that school officials need to shrink the size of new schools to save money, a belt-tightening technique that school officials say could be harmful.

The problem is the effect of school size on the education that occurs inside these buildings.

Howard relies heavily on the concepts of team teaching and grouping students by grade. To make it work, new schools are designed as so-called schools within schools; clusters of classrooms that center on a series of common pods -- sort of like a sunflower.

These designs require more space than the normal cookie-cutter schools with self-contained classrooms strung along hallways.

Shrinking schools to save on construction costs might do harm to the team teaching approach, which encourages instructors to work together and share techniques, school officials claim.

It's an argument not likely to carry much water, given the county's financial situation.

The reality is that the school system -- which has already cut back on spending for new schools at the elementary and middle school levels -- will have to toe the line like the rest of county government.

Decades from now, we may all look back with remorse on what could have been.

The schools we build over the next decade -- like Columbia's transit system -- may be somewhat inadequate from the start. And making due with less sometimes means having to play catch-up as time goes on.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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