Howard Co.'s bus system better but woes remain


January 25, 1998|By Norris West

MY CONFIDENCE in Howard County's enigmatic bus system was at a low point a few months ago.

After waiting more than a half-hour for a bus that didn't come to my Ellicott City neighborhood on a chilly September morning, I had to forget about taking mass transit to work in Columbia that day. I drove instead; the next bus was not scheduled to come for hours.

The frustration of waiting in vain for a bus and the indifference shown by a transit system operator when I called to complain made me reluctant to try again to catch the bus.

Fortunately, I have the option of driving, unlike many riders of the Howard Area Transit System (HATS). Half of the riders who responded to a survey have no automobile in their household.

Not until last week did I make another attempt to get to work on the Crayola System. (HATS bus routes are named in the basic crayon colors of red, yellow, green, orange and brown.)

I made it to the bus stop five minutes before the scheduled arrival time. No bus was in sight. Five minutes later, still no bus. Two minutes later, I looked up from my newspaper toward the horizon. Nothing but homes, cars, trees and asphalt.

My confidence in this suburban transit system was sinking again. Regardless, I was committed to allowing the amount of time college students give late-running associate professors to get to class, about 15 minutes (rather than the 30 minutes for a full professor).

Having waited a half-hour the last time, I wasn't about to give HATS tenured status again.

The system and its operator, Yellow Transportation, received a number of complaints of late-arriving and never-arriving buses last year. Yellow Transportation and Corridor Transportation Corp., which manages the system for the county, had promised that performance would improve.

Reliability is crucial in public transportation, particularly for a system that desperately wants to attract new riders.

I appreciate the importance of public transportation to commuters who want an alternative to their automobiles and particularly to the souls who depend entirely on transit for traveling in Howard County.

Transit is invaluable, even in hard-to-serve suburbs where sparsely populated areas make it challenging for operators to design bus routes capable of reaching potential riders.

Transit's importance to those without cars is obvious. In this era of welfare reform, it is critical that people tugging their bootstraps have a reliable way to reach jobs in suburban employment centers.

Buses also relieve congestion for those who must or choose to drive. When automobile owners opt to take transit or carpool, they help reduce pollution in a metropolitan area that has some of the nation's poorest air quality.

State transportation planners could do even more by seriously considering another light-rail link from Columbia, southwest of Baltimore, to White Marsh, northeast of the city. The reduced congestion and pollution would make the project worth the considerable investment it would take.

In Howard, the Crayola System is by no means the quickest way to work. It turns a 12-minute linear commute into a 55-minute winding, twisting ride. But travelers can get plenty of reading done, unless they choose to watch the county as it continues to change.

It is not an unpleasant alternative to driving, if the bus comes.

Low on gas

My faith in Crayola System was somewhat restored when the shiny yellow-and-white bus climbed the hilly road and entered my line of sight. I had waited five minutes beyond the scheduled arrival time. Yes, it was slightly late, but well within reasonable limits.

The hour was early, but the driver offered a gregarious greeting. The 28-seat bus was almost brand new, equipped with the latest in wheelchair access and chairs that were more like an automobile's bucket seats than standard benches on most buses. The seat design was ergonomically correct, with lumbar support.

Ray Ambrose, transit administrator for CTC, which also manages the four-county Connect-A-Ride system's eight lines, said the new bus cost about $190,000, with the radio communications, fare box and wheelchair equipment, and is expected to last 12 JTC years and more than 400,000 miles.

It is the only new bus in the eight-vehicle system. Three buses are 4 years old and four others are 8 years old and soon will have to be reconditioned, according to Mr. Ambrose.

Anyone riding the new bus to work, senior centers, doctor's offices or shopping centers is almost certain to have a comfortable trip.

It's good to hear that complaints are down and ridership is up, but glitches remain. Two days after my successful journey, I took the bus again. The vehicle arrived at the Columbia mall stop nearly out of gas. The Texaco was an unscheduled stop on the route.

Some problems can't be avoided; others should never happen. In a growing county that needs a dependable public transportation network, HATS still has some miles to travel on the road to reliability.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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