Riders irked by bus services Increasing complaints result in formation of advisory group

September 11, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

An article in the Howard County edition of The Sun on Wednesday incorrectly stated the reason for the creation of a passenger advisory group. Formation of the group was part of a contract between Corridor Transportation Corp. and Howard County's transportation division. The group was created before passengers lodged complaints about local bus service.

The Sun regrets the error.

Buses that are late. Wheelchair lifts that don't work. Buses that don't even show up.

These are a few of the more than 30 complaints that passengers have lodged since late July against the Howard Area Transit Service (HATS) and Connect-A-Ride -- Howard County's two largest public transportation services.

Both are under new management: Yellow Transportation Inc., a Savage-based bus company, has been operating them for more than two months.


"I have seen changes in administration of these buses, but nothing which would equal the absolute incompetence of this Yellow Bus company," Robert Wang of Columbia wrote in a scathing letter to officials of Corridor Transportation Corp., the Laurel-based company that was hired by the county to oversee the transformation of the county's public transportation system.

"I do not understand what is actually going on here, but must assume that whatever agency contracted with this incompetent company was not doing its job," Wang wrote.

Ray Ambrose, transit administrator for CTC, said his company and Yellow Transportation are committed to improving service.

"We're not happy with the problems, and Yellow is not happy with the problems," Ambrose said. "It's a matter of rectifying the problems so that we are performing at a level that is satisfactory to our customers."

As a result of the increase in complaints, CTC and the county are forming a Passenger Advisory Group composed of passengers and officials from CTC and the county. The group's first meeting is at 7 p.m. tonightat Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia.

CTC was hired by the county in July 1996 to manage and guide expansion of Howard's public transportation system. It immediately assumed the reins of HATS, formerly called ColumBUS, a $1 million-a-year operation run by Columbia Association and funded by federal, state, county and Columbia Association sources.

At the end of CTC's initial one-year contract, bids were solicited from companies to run the public transportation systems with CTC continuing to oversee the system.

Yellow Transportation Inc. was awarded both services in June when it beat five other companies in bidding for the $970,000 Connect-A-Ride contract and the $734,000 HATS contract that together serve a half million riders annually.

The bids came in below previous costs, but there have been more complaints.

Typical of the gripes is one from Helen Thompson. A resident of Columbia's Wilde Lake village for 11 years, Thompson said that a few weeks ago she had to wait 15 minutes for a bus to take her from Wilde Lake Village Center to her home.

"It was so hot, and I couldn't breathe," Thompson recalled. "It was pretty bad."

Five-year contract

But any talk of canceling the contract with Yellow Transportation is premature, said Carl Balser, chief of Howard's Division of Transportation Planning.

"Yellow Transportation put together an excellent proposal," he said. "We and CTC contacted quite a few references and we don't see any basis for pulling the contract."

The contract with Yellow Transportation runs for five years with an option to renew for two more years.

Each year, more than 200,000 riders use HATS, which connects the seven villages of Columbia, Ellicott City and business centers to other suburban transit services in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

About 300,000 riders a year use the Connect-A-Ride service, which runs from Laurel Centre Mall to the Mall in Columbia.

Peter R. Hefler, deputy transit administrator for CTC and the company's primary trouble-shooter, said he has received 31 complaints about bus service during an eight-week period since Yellow assumed operation of the systems.

The 31 complaints are the most CTC had ever received during an eight-week period, Ambrose said.

While the complaints range from missing letters on the %o destination boards of the buses to buses that don't even show up, CTC officials are taking each one seriously, Hefler said.

"Any complaint is bad," he said. "My goal is to have zero complaints."

Aging bus fleet

Buses that are late and buses that don't show up are the two most frequent complaints, according to Hefler. Ambrose attributes both problems to a combination of unfamiliarity on the part of Yellow Transportation and its operators and the declining condition of the county's seven buses -- all of which have logged at least 350,000 miles.

Ambrose points out that four of the seven buses have been tuned up with the rest waiting for maintenance. He also notes that the county is receiving in a few weeks a new $190,000 bus through a federal and state grant.

"I see some light at the end of the tunnel," Ambrose said. "I think we'll be in a better position in a few weeks than we are today."

When the passenger advisory group meets tonight, Toby Kline of Columbia says she's going to push for a single bus route between Columbia's Owen Brown village and Dobbin Center.

"We're 10 minutes away from Dobbin Center [by car], but the problem is that we have to take two buses and it takes two hours to get to Dobbin Center," said Kline, who has lived in Owen Brown for 18 years. "To me, that's ridiculous, and I'm going to bring that up."

Hefler said the advisory group will be a welcome departure from on-time statistics and fare-box revenue, which are typically used to gauge customer satisfaction.

"Nobody knows better what's out there than the people who ride the buses," Hefler said.

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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