Federal funds urged for buses

April 20, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County's Public Transportation Board was urged last night to get a transit system operating soon to take advantage of federal grant programs.

Janet Louden McGlynn, executive director of the Urban Rural Transportation Alliance Inc. (URTA), told the board that the grants could be used to buy new buses for the system.

Ms. McGlynn spoke at the first public hearing on a transit plan prepared by the Bethesda-based Ecosometrics Inc., a consulting firm, for county transportation planners.

The Ecosometrics study, released last month, calls for replacing the fixed-route ColumBus system, run by the nonprofit Columbia Association since 1967, with a transit system run by county government or an independent county transit authority.

The new transit system would also be responsible for doing what URTA now does: giving rides to disabled residents and people who live in the county's rural west, where fixed bus routes aren't practical.

Ecosometrics discovered that the $600,000 or so the county contributes annually to the nonprofit URTA could be considered matching funds for the new overall transit system.

That could make the county eligible for federal matching grants for transportation programs in rural areas.

The county's chief transportation planner, Carl Balser, acknowledged that the money has been available for years.

What was unclear until now, however, was whether it would cost even more money to provide the additional service the federal program required, including picking up additional passengers on the way to the homes or workplaces of people who had called for rides.

The additional money is a critical need right now, said Ms. McGlynn, who urged the board to recommend that the county not wait until fiscal 1997 to tap the extra money.

"It's only by dint of work and the grace of God that the fleet is still running," she said of URTA's 24 buses, 16 of which have exceeded the recommended replacement mileage of 120,000.

"I'm not sure how much more I can do with much less."

The transit plan has three levels of funding -- low, medium and high. She noted that the "medium" funding level for URTA's type of specialized bus service, nearly $1.4 million annually, would cover 110,000 rides. This year, URTA is providing 104,000 rides.

Add to that the additional service that is required by the Americans With Disabilities Act, and such funding quickly becomes inadequate, Ms. McGlynn said.

For example, a regular county bus route will have to be augmented with service for disabled riders who can't get to a bus stop and need to be picked up within a swath of three-fourths of a mile on either side of the route.

Using current ColumBus routes, it appears that would include just about all of Columbia, she said.

The Columbia Association has spent the past 14 years attempting to divest itself of ColumBus and persuade county officials to start a county service instead.

ColumBus has a fleet of eight buses owned by the county, which also

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receives most of the state and federal money that keeps the system going. The association contributes about $182,000 annually to ColumBus' $1 million budget.

But officials argued that until now, the county was too spread out for a viable fixed-route, scheduled bus service.

Planners believe the county now has enough people and employment to justify its own system.

Last night, the board was told the county needn't go to the trouble of creating a system, because one already operates within its borders.

Representatives of the nonprofit Corridor Transportation Corp., which has run the Connect-A-Ride bus service around the Laurel area for six years, urged the board to consider using the service to run ColumBus routes as an experiment.

"We perform a function that is similar to a transportation authority," said Robert Levan, a Howard County attorney who helped found the corporation.

"There is a regional system in place and it's actually operating, and it's operating efficiently."

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