Curtailing of bus service causes worry

Residents who depend on public transit attend meeting to voice concerns

Budgeting error forced changes

Longer waits, fewer stops expected to start March 14

Howard County

March 01, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Dora Garza rides the bright-green Howard Transit buses from her home in historic Ellicott City to her job in River Hill every day - except on Saturday.

There is no bus to River Hill on Saturday, so she pays $32 for a round-trip cab ride to her job cleaning the Columbia Association's athletic club, she said.

"It's too much money," the 56-year-old woman said as she left a Howard County Transportation Board meeting Thursday night after hearing that budget woes will force longer waits and reduced bus service starting March 14.

Garza was one of several riders who came to tell board members that they depend on the bus system in a county choked with private vehicles, and their hardships will increase when the changes take effect.

"This is such a sad process," said board member Carol Filipczak after the meeting.

"There's going to be a loss in ridership. The question is how large that loss is going to be," said Ray Ambrose, manager of Corridor Transportation, the firm that runs the Howard Transit system.

The bus system has been growing rapidly over the past few years - nearly tripling ridership since 2000 from 184,300 to 559,000 - but discovery of a $6.3 million budget error last month is forcing cutbacks, including to service the county added last summer to compensate for state cuts to commuter lines.

County officials said they budgeted the $6.3 million over the past two years to match federal and state grants, but never deposited the money . Bills were paid from operating cash until a review this year discovered the error. The county plans to cover the shortfall with a combination of contingency fund transfers and cuts.

"It shocked me. My goal is to improve public transportation," County Executive James N. Robey told a lunchtime crowd Tuesday at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center.

"I found out one morning when [administration officials] all walked into the room and no one wanted to speak. It wasn't intentional," he told members of the Association of Community Services, an umbrella social service group.

Mercedes Proctor, 16, a Long Reach High student, said she uses the bus to get to the county library on Sundays, but now won't be able to. She worried that less late-night service would mean long waits for her trips home on other days.

James Van Asdale, 20, walks a half-mile from his home east of Howard High School, along Route 108 to the Palace Nine commercial complex to catch a bus to work. Now, he said, he'll have to walk farther, across Route 108, and south along Phelps Luck Drive to find a bus to his job at Snowden Square shopping center.

Velvet Collado, 42, said she's thinking about starting a transportation business after a maddening experience two years ago when her car was out of commission for two months.

"I'll never get on that bus again. Never," she said, explaining that it took her three hours each way to take her child from their Long Reach home to day care in Dorsey Search, and then go to Howard Community College and back.

The loss of neighborhood service to park-and-ride lots for commuters is what upset Laura Cornelius, 66, who walks from her home to the Oakland Mills Village Center to catch a Howard Transit bus to a state park-and-ride lot on Route 175 at Snowden River Boulevard. There she takes a commuter bus to downtown Baltimore.

"I rode the same bus for 10 years," she said "and you guys eliminated it."

County transportation planner Carl S. Balser said he and Corridor Transportation officials are trying to make adjustments to help riders who have pointed out hardships caused by the cuts.

Despite that, most waits will be an hour instead of 45 minutes, and late-night and Sunday service is being curtailed. Some waits between buses will be two hours on weekends, officials said. Raising the $1 base fare won't help much, since fares account for only 7 percent of operating costs.

"If we think we can accommodate any more [riders] based on what we heard tonight, we'll do it," Balser told those in attendance.

On Wednesday he said one morning and one evening bus trip may be preserved for commuters such as Cornelius.

"This is a bump in the road," Balser said. "We will recover."

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