Growing numbers climb aboard Howard buses

Core group of riders depends on service

June 20, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

On a hot, sticky Friday, Rodney Stanley is among a handful of people waiting outside The Mall in Columbia for a bus that will take him to his home in the Village of Harper's Choice.

Though they seem out of place at a shopping center built for the convenience of motorists, Stanley and his fellow bus riders represent a growing trend. The nation's 11th most affluent county, Howard is also home to an increasing number of people of more modest means and older and disabled people who need or want to use public transportation.

Stanley, 43, a maintenance worker, takes the bus to shop, visit friends and see his attorney.

Priscilla Bragg, 50, of Dorsey's Search, who sees bus service as a lifesaver, takes it home from the mall after being dropped off by a commuter bus from Washington, where she is going to school to be a computer specialist.

Sheila Chapple, 29, of Laurel depends on the service to get her to classes at Howard Community College. Angela Wilkens, 28, of Ellicott City dumped her car because it cost too much to maintain; and despite misgivings, she gambles on the bus to help her reach a job at SoupMasters in the mall.

Nearly 150,000 riders hopped onto Howard Area Transit Service (HATS) buses from July through March, an 11 percent increase over ridership for the same period in fiscal 1998. This followed a 43 percent jump from fiscal year 1997, when Howard County took control of bus service.

Ridership on the Mass Transit Administration's more established service in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County is up 1.3 percent this year, says Frank Fulton, an MTA spokesman. The performance followed a decline of 0.8 percent in fiscal 1998 after a rise of 2.4 percent the year before.

Most HATS riders, according to surveys by the system's management, make less than $25,000 a year and have one car, at most, in their households. Riders are evenly spread across all age groups. Most live and work in Columbia, using the bus to get to school, jobs, medical appointments, shopping and social engagements.

Increases in ridership are expected to continue, and as that happens the need for better service becomes a greater priority.

Said Carl Balser, the county's director of transportation planning: "Many [riders] are the elderly or people with disabilities; a number of them are people who cannot afford a car. It is a constituency, and it is growing. The county has a responsibility to provide service to those groups of people."

Those with the county's public transportation board know that, as do Corridor Transportation Corp. and Yellow Transportation Corp., the two companies that operate buses in Howard.

In Corridor's surveys, passengers evaluated performance in 11 categories ranging from punctuality to the quality of telephone operations. The surveys noted overwhelming satisfaction in three areas -- driver courtesy, the heating on buses in winter and the $1 fare -- and approval increases in all but three areas.

Yet 27 percent said they worried about bus safety, 51 percent described bus breakdowns as a problem and 62 percent complained that the 7 p.m. closing time is too early.

"The survey results were not a surprise because they confirm issues we've heard in prior surveys," Balser said. "It's a never-ending struggle to stay on top of service quality. You can be doing fine one day and then you lose personnel or you run into a particularly hot spell and all the air conditioning goes down on some buses." In response, the county increased the HATS budget to $3.8 million for the coming fiscal year, a 34 percent increase over the $2.5 million for this year.

The money will pay for a few additional buses and overhauling the eight-vehicle fleet that runs 13 hours a day. Officials hope to install a second bus on some routes, leading to shorter waits for riders.

HATS also provides services for the disabled and for people in western Howard who must call for rides. But it will be a challenge to institute the longer hours that riders clamor for, and people still want routes that include more than the Columbia-Ellicott City-Laurel triangle. Even as the county pours in more money, says outgoing transportation board Chairman Jeffry Barnett, more will be required -- at the same time that the expense becomes more an issue for taxpayers for whom HATS riders often are invisible.

"It's like unleashing the monster," said Barnett, who recalls the county's contribution being as low as $50,000 10 years ago. "But it has to happen. We need to be aware that once it starts, you can't stop it."

HATS has developed a small yet loyal following. More than 80 percent of survey respondents say they use buses at least once a week.

The most heavily used among the service's five routes are the green and orange, which run along Little Patuxent Parkway and Harper's Farm Road. Riders use these lines to go from the mall to village centers in Harper's Choice and Wilde Lake, and to Howard Community College and Howard General Hospital.

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