Ways sought to expand bus system Riders criticize service as inadequate for the poor, elderly

'A tremendous need'

Debate centers on July takeover of CA's ColumBUS

June 05, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

In a middle-class county where most households have two or more cars and little appetite for buses, Howard officials are debating how best to expand the rudimentary mass transit system on which the county's poor, elderly and disabled depend.

The first step in that expansion comes July 1, when the county takes over the Columbia Association's 20-year-old ColumBUS network, absorbing it into a new entity to be known as the Howard Area Transit Service.

County officials are hoping to create a transit system that would far exceed in scope the limited, four-route ColumBUS network and pay for it through a combination of existing funds and new state and federal grants.

"We need a regional transportation system," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker -- but only if it can be done "in a cost-effective way."

Even as they gear up for a June 25 public hearing on ways to improve the county's mass transportation, officials have floated some ideas. Among them:

A regular bus route to the Gateway Industrial Park in East Columbia, where many low-income and elderly residents commute to the Department of Social Services and the other county agencies.

Bus routes to Ellicott City beyond the county government offices now served through ColumBUS.

New bus routes to Elkridge and to ru-ral western Howard.

Bus service to the Savage and Dorsey MARC stations, which would give Howard commuters more convenient access to other Maryland jurisdictions through the commuter rail line.

For planners, the challenge will come in crafting a system that encourages drivers to leave their cars at home, while at the same time providing a transportation lifeline for those with no other way to get around.

A demand for such services exists, said county officials and some who rely on the current transit system.

"There are whole segments of the county that can't take advantage of the bus system right now," said Carl Balser, chief of transportation planning for the county Department of Planning and Zoning.

Marva Jones, a Clarksville resident, agrees. When in Columbia, she rides ColumBUS "whenever necessary, mostly to The Mall" in Columbia's Town Center. She said the bus service does not run often enough or to enough places in the county.

"The county needs to have a better bus service, and it needs to operate at a faster pace," Jones said, while waiting for a taxi at West Columbia's Wilde Lake village shopping center. "Especially in the winter, you have to wait entirely too long."

Paula Armwood, a Harper's Choice village resident, has been riding ColumBUS every day to work at The Mall in Columbia since her car broke down in January. Because she relies on public transportation, she said she wants to see better service on weekends.

"Why can't they have [ColumBUS] running on Sunday and later than they do on Saturdays?" Armwood asked.

County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, a Republican who represents North Laurel-Savage, said his area is poorly served by the mass transit system.

"We have a tremendous need for seniors as well as for folks who are low- and moderate-income," Schrader said.

But the question of funding has yet to be resolved.

The county has budgeted $570,425 in federal and state money and $110,000 in county funds for the expanded bus system, including the takeover of ColumBUS from the Columbia Association on July 1.

That is more than $150,000 below the amount the association receives in federal, state and county funds to operate ColumBUS, which carries about 250,000 riders each year to such sites as The Mall in Columbia, Howard County General Hospital, Columbia village centers and the county government building in Ellicott City.

Officials will try to maintain the level of services with the money available but expect to make some as yet undetermined route changes.

Meanwhile, to fulfill the expanded vision for the new system, officials are banking on additional grants worth $333,967 from the state and federal governments.

Even if they secure such funding, officials will have to determine the most efficient way to use it -- a task that can have its pitfalls, as one recent pilot program illustrates.

Under that pilot program, which ends June 30, the Department of Social Services pays $100 a day for a private bus service to pick up clients from a ColumBUS stop at the Dobbin Center in East Columbia and drive them to the department's offices in the Gateway Industrial Park.

Usually, four people or fewer ride the bus each day -- at a cost of $25 a day per rider for a trip of about three miles.

"I was tickled pink to provide that service to people, but I cannot afford it," said Sam Marshall, social services director. "I don't think the Department of Social Services ought to be in the transportation business. It's not in my budget."

Balser, the transportation planning official, hopes the county can find a balance between those fiscal constraints and the county's mass transportation needs.

To help do that, the county has hired the Corridor Transportation Corp., a Laurel company, to manage the new system and help develop solutions to Howard's public transit problems. Corridor has a one-year contract with the county starting July 1.

At the end of the contract, bids will be solicited for a transportation management company to further develop the county's system.

"Dr. Ecker's feelings on this are if we can make the transit system more efficient and cost effective and provide more service with the same outlay of county funds, he's willing to do it," Balser said. "We're going to try."

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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