Bus fuel rise tops gains in ridership

As transit need grows, gas costs will crimp system improvements

July 28, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

Howard County's green transit buses carried 13 percent more riders last fiscal year, but the revenue gain was more than eaten up by higher fuel costs, according to Ray Ambrose, the system's administrator.

"Our costs really increased rapidly last year because of the fuel issue," he said.

While the system carried 80,000 more riders and took in $50,000 more in revenue, gas costs for the 27-bus system were up $80,000, Ambrose said.

The problem will keep the system from adding major new services at a time when better public transportation is being discussed as a vital element in redeveloping Columbia's downtown, and to serve economic growth.

"I think in order to make transit viable in that downtown setting, it has to be far more frequent than it currently is," said Carl Balser, the county's chief of transportation planning. The buses now stop once an hour.

That's a view shared by Richard Kirchner, chairman of Transportation Advocates, a private group pushing for more public transit.

"The hour bus time is still discouraging," he said. "There's still concern about the need for more frequent stops." Balser said central Columbia also needs a better bus stop. The current hub, located near the Sears automotive center at The Mall in Columbia "is not very attractive or conducive to people going to the mall," he said.

Carol Filipczak, chairman of the county's Transportation Board, said "We have to start riding buses. There's no way, unless people like sitting in traffic, to expand highways at the rate demand will increase."

But one innovation - really a return to past practice - has begun, Balser said.

Residents and businesses moving into Maple Lawn, Maryland, the big mixed-use development in Fulton, are being charged a small fee that will be used to pay the county to publicize public transportation services there. As the community grows, Balser said the private money could help subsidize a bus route to the community. Balser recalled that in Columbia's early days, the Columbia Association ran and paid for a small bus system that was free to residents.

Balser said the bus system continues to adjust routes to attract more riders, and seniors living in new condominium communities sometimes request service. The system also is using more so-called "low-floor" buses that have fewer steps and don't require wheelchair lifts, he and Ambrose said.

Despite higher fuel costs, no fare increases for Howard Transit are planned, Ambrose said. More-fuel-efficient hybrid buses are too expensive, so Ambrose and Balser see no major changes in the system's operations this fiscal year.

"We're relying on passenger growth to help us recover fare box revenues," Ambrose said. They make up about 10 percent of the system's income.

The bus system run by Corridor Transportation Co. spends about $7 million a year in mainly state and county funds to operate both the fixed route and para-transit system for handicapped riders.

Last year, the fixed route system carried 727,000 riders and para-transit carried 103,000, Ambrose said, but ridership is growing at a good pace.

"It's just the natural growth of the county that's creating demand. It's still the people that don't have the means to get around with a car" who are riding, he said.

Half the riders are workers traveling to their jobs, Ambrose said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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