Eastern Shore looks for economic benefit from transit upgrade

Expanded system aims to link isolated residents to region's job markets

January 09, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY - After nearly 18 months of planning and study, officials on the Lower Eastern Shore laid out the blueprint yesterday for a streamlined transit network aimed at linking people in poor rural communities scattered throughout the three-county region with jobs, social services and health care in urban centers such as Ocean City and Salisbury.

The idea, said Memo Diriker, who heads the Project Management Group, an economic development consulting office at Salisbury State University, is to create the region's first comprehensive transportation system - combining local systems that too often have limited operating hours or that duplicate services without meeting the needs of many residents and businesses.

Diriker said that $2 million in grants, mainly from state and federal transportation agencies, has the system up and running on a bare-bones basis. Eventually, it should provide reliable transportation for residents in the 1,200-square-mile region that includes Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset counties.

But even in its start-up phase, the system offers Lower Shore residents bus service that crosses county lines for the first time. Plans call for a central office to coordinate the schedules of bus services, offered by the three counties and various social service agencies, within a few years.

"The timetable calls for a full, comprehensive regional transit system to be in place by 2005," Diriker said during a news conference yesterday at Salisbury State. "It's designed to be flexible so it won't displace intra-county service."

Much of the push for the system came from the business community. Ocean City merchants, for instance, have suffered for years from labor shortages while potential workers have filled unemployment rolls in rural portions of Worcester, Somerset and Wicomico.

Transportation is so scarce that big employers, giant poultry processors such as Perdue and Tyson, for instance, have operated private bus services for years.

"The beauty of this is we'll have a very lean management structure, a director and some support staff to link the systems that individual counties and Ocean City already offer," said Diriker. "Now, it's difficult for somebody in Crisfield to get to Ocean City or Salisbury where the jobs are. It's the same story for health care and shopping - basic kinds of things people take for granted."

State and local officials see the system as a key element to stepped-up economic development in a region that has lagged behind much of the state in job creation.

The system, said state Del. Charles A. McClenahan, a Republican from Crisfield, is an example of the kind of regional cooperation encouraged by the state's One Maryland program, which funnels loans and tax credits to the state's seven poorest areas, including Worcester and Somerset counties.

Eastern Shore legislators are scheduled to deliver a report to Gov. Parris N. Glendening today. The document calls for the creation of regional economic development planning councils - one for the three-county Lower Shore, and one representing the other six counties on the peninsula. A similar regional approach has worked well in Southern Maryland, McClenahan said.

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