Drawn by tighter schedules and more convenient hours, riders are using Howard County's bus transit system in substantially higher numbers, officials say.
Overall, ridership on the Howard bus system was up 36 percent in July and 48 percent in August compared with ridership in those months last year. Corridor Transportation Corp. Administrator Ray Ambrose said last month's figures, though not fully tabulated, are at least as good as August's. Corridor runs the Howard transit system.
In addition, the state-run Mass Transit Administration commuter service to Baltimore and Washington is planning changes this winter that would better coordinate routes and give commuters more schedule choices, said MTA planner Glenn Hoge. Public information meetings about those proposals were scheduled last week at East Columbia Library.
Also, Howard's federally funded reverse-commute program, which began ferrying workers from West Baltimore to jobs in suburbs in November, is up to 107 riders in seven Yellow Transportation vans, county transportation planner Carl Balser said.
For Howard's bus system, Ambrose said, "It's been a straight-line increase since January."
Ambrose also noted a raft of improvements scheduled to start by Nov. 1 - including lower fares for seniors and express service to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The buses are to be repainted with a green, yellow and white color scheme and a new name: Howard Transit, instead of Howard Area Transit Service (HATS). The bus system is scheduled to unveil the changes at the second annual Fifty-Plus Expo on Oct. 20, when the company will shuttle participants from The Mall in Columbia parking lot near Sears to Wilde Lake High School, where the event is to be held, Ambrose said.
"It's an image change. HATS was fine when we started, but I think the image was whimsical. Now that we're expanding in area and depth, `Howard Transit' portrays a more serious corporate image," Balser said.
One casualty among the changes is the service along U.S. 40 to Rolling Road in Baltimore County, which Ambrose said "was very lightly used." Also, fares for service by appointment for elderly and disabled people are to double from $1 to $2. Another problem is the cost of the extra riders on Howard Transit's $5.2 million budget - $2.2 million of which is paid by Howard County.
The more riders the Howard transit system has, the higher its expenses. Ambrose said the Yellow and Brown routes, which have seen the greatest increase in ridership since spring, will each cost an added $67,000 a year to operate. Fares supply only 10 percent to 15 percent of the system's budget.
Buses have been stopping every 45 minutes since March, instead of every 60 or 90 minutes, and are operating until 10:30 p.m. - and as late as 12:30 a.m. on one route - instead of stopping at 7 p.m. That means higher operating expenses and more buses. Balser said the county wants to expand service along U.S. 1 to help connect workers with industrial and warehousing employers there.
Balser said he believes that the BWI service, which will start near Sears at The Mall and stop at Arundel Mills Mall, "could provide dramatic results in the long run."
But county Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who is an advocate of mass transit, said its costs should be calculated more broadly to include fewer traffic jams, less air pollution and less oil consumption from private vehicles.
"It's not just the cost of [bus] service, it's the cost to society. The advantages [of mass transit] to society are dramatic," Guzzone said.
County Executive James N. Robey said that despite county residents being "wedded" to cars, "There are employers in this county crying out for employees. We can't lose sight of the fact that there are people who don't have cars or who can't drive anymore."
He noted that Howard's senior population is growing faster than any other age group: "We've got to do as much as we can."
As if in echo of that sentiment, Ambrose said fares for seniors are going down Nov. 1, to 25 cents a ride vs. $1. With the county's senior population expected to nearly triple in the next several decades, Robey said he thinks the buses provide a service that will help many people reside in their homes longer by giving those without transportation the freedom to do things such as run errands and keep appointments.
Meanwhile, the commuter service run by the MTA will extend the morning hours on the Baltimore run from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Two additional buses will double the number of runs to four. Another bus will go to Washington, too, and Clary's Forest and Hickory Ridge will be added to the routes, Hoge said.
Officials are happy that the local bus system is attracting more riders.
"I think statistics like this just prove the point that if you make it [buses] more convenient and easy to use, people will use it," Guzzone said.