MTA looking at new type of service to area suburbs

System of vans may be used to transport workers

September 14, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The state's Mass Transit Administration is trying to negotiate "a new kind of service" for Baltimore residents who need transportation to jobs in suburbs such as Howard County, state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday.

A system of passenger vans, financed by tax credits for employers and fares paid by employees, could help workers who depend on lightly used, inefficient bus routes, Flanagan said, though no deals have been struck.

In addressing a Columbia-based group called Transportation Advocates at the Bain Center, the transportation secretary said that he is trying to restructure underused bus routes to save money -- a plan that was put off after intense criticism last spring.

He has not said when any new proposals would be announced.

"Soon," was all he would tell Judy Pittman, a member of the advocates group that also helped organize Howard County's Neighbor Ride program for the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group of agencies in Howard. "I don't have a date. We recognize that any change is a serious change."

Pittman told Flanagan, "People are very concerned. We get calls frequently."

The secretary said he has worked to improve the Baltimore-area bus system by boosting reliability and on-time service and by reducing maintenance problems.

Flanagan said after the meeting that the MTA is facing an $11 million added fuel expense because of soaring gas prices. The state is planning to buy 10 fuel-saving hybrid electric/gas buses next year, he said. The hybrids cost more to buy than diesel buses, but they save money over time and reduce pollution and noise. New York uses them, and cities such as Memphis, Tenn.; St. Louis; Charlotte, N.C.; and Ottawa are experimenting with them.

Flanagan also repeated his rationale for cutting bus service on some lines -- to drop lightly used routes to the suburbs in order to improve service on more heavily used routes. That move was designed to save $5 million. As part of the plan, Flanagan had proposed eliminating the No. 150 commuter bus connecting downtown Baltimore to Ellicott City, and one express line from Columbia to Baltimore.

"It's easy to make demands [for service] when it doesn't cost anything," Flanagan said. "It does not make sense to send fixed bus routes out to remote employment centers, but targeted service makes sense."

State and federal funding was cut last year for a reverse commuting program that Howard County still pays to operate in a limited way.

Ray Ambrose, manager of the 26-bus Howard Transit system for Corridor Transportation Corp., who attended the meeting with Flanagan, said later that his system runs buses three times daily from Baltimore to businesses along U.S. 1 and U.S. 40.

County planner Carl Balser, who also attended the meeting, said only vehicles not purchased with federal or state funding are used for this service. Ambrose said his system expects to spend up to $400,000 more for gas this year.

As for daily commuter express service to Baltimore, Flanagan called that "a very, very lightly demanded service."

Not all in the crowd of about 25 people were happy with his positions.

Mary Agnes Lewis, a Clarksville business owner and resident, said traffic on Route 108 in Clarksville is congested and is worse at nearby intersections such as Ten Oaks Road and Brighton Dam Road. But she said she has gotten the runaround from county and state officials for years about her complaints.

Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, a former candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates who represents Owen Brown on the Columbia Association board of directors, said the county's senior population is growing fast and suggested the state should be planning for mid-day bus service to Baltimore or Washington.

"What is he doing to keep us connected? He should be an advocate for us," she said later.

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