Big changes planned in county bus service

Aim is to cut waiting times without raising costs

October 01, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

State and Howard County transportation officials are planning major changes in the county's local bus system to cut the time between many stops in half without raising costs.

The changes, which mainly would affect stops in central Columbia and Ellicott City during weekday peak hours, would begin in March, after a public comment period at meetings Oct. 24 and Nov. 28. They also would offer slightly earlier and later service on some routes and extend service to several places not now receiving it.

The improvements would be achieved by dropping little-used service on several routes, reducing duplications in which buses from several routes use the same stops and by moving from a once-per-hour "pulse" system centered on The Mall in Columbia to half-hour departures.

"We've had requests for more frequent bus service, but funding has continuously been an obstacle," Carl Balser, the county's senior transportation planner, told about 25 people at a county Transportation Board meeting this week.

To reduce wait times between stops everywhere in the county without making route changes would double the county's $5 million annual cost for Howard Transit and require the purchase of about 15 buses.

"The money simply isn't there," he said.

But Glenn Hoge chief of statewide transit development for the Maryland Transit Administration, spent the summer riding the system's buses and worked out a more limited plan.

The basic idea, he said, is to stagger departure times of the buses, which now operate on the "pulse" system, which brings every color-coded route to The Mall in Columbia hub stop behind Sears at the same times through the day.

Instead of all buses leaving the hub stop at The Mall in Columbia on the hour, half the vehicles would move on the half-hour. That means they would hit the most heavily used stops twice as frequently in central Columbia, serving Town Center and the villages of Harper's Choice, Wilde Lake, Long Reach and Oakland Mills and, to a lesser extent, Owen Brown.

In addition, another circuitous route that covers Ellicott City and connects to Columbia would be changed so that buses would travel the loop in both directions, again at staggered times.

That, Hoge said, will allow use of two buses rather than three on that route and drastically cut travel times while adding service for the first time to the Chatham Apartments off U.S. 40.

"This is the linchpin of this plan," Hoge said about the two-direction Yellow Route that would make it easier and faster to move between Columbia, Long Gate shopping center and the major points in Ellicott City. Those points include the Miller branch library and the county senior center next door; the Chatham Apartments, the Wal-Mart on Ridge Road and the Park View apartments for seniors nearby; Normandy Shopping Center, Town and Country apartments and Heartlands, and the county government complex on Court House Drive.

Some places, such as the county Circuit Court building, will lose service, though Hoge said no one was observed using that stop over a period of time.

"I rode every route multiple times. This is how you learn," Hoge said.

Riders who attended the meeting raised other issues, such as bus drivers who don't know where all the stops are or who place wheelchairs incorrectly in the aisle. But several said that, overall, they like the proposals.

"I think they're great," said Irene Broadnax, who said that between 30 and 50 residents of Parkview at Snowden, an apartment house for moderate-income senior citizens on Snowden River Parkway, want more bus service.

"If they're coming up there, they will be welcome," she said.

"Most of it, I think is fine," said Jan Hansen of Columbia, another frequent rider. But she called one change that would reduce the number of stops at the Ellicott City Wal-Mart "stupid."

Hoge said small changes to the plan are possible, but said major alterations are not.

"It's like a puzzle. If you pull out one piece," the whole plan would collapse, he said.

Howard Transit's fixed-route ridership continued to grow in July and August, reported Ray Ambrose, the bus system's administrator for Corridor Transportation Corp., the firm that contracts to run the 27-bus system.

Fixed-route ridership was up 11 percent over the same period in 2005, he said, and ridership is projected to reach 757,609 this fiscal year. The system also separately operates buses for disabled riders who use individual appointments, rather than the scheduled routes.

Ambrose also said the changes should help riders and increase use of the system, which is used mostly by people who don't drive or who can't afford a car but need to get to jobs, Howard Community College, stores and medical appointments.

"One of the major advantages in doing this is there are five village centers whose residents use the system. What they get out of this is half-hour service," Ambrose said.

Carol Filipczak, chair of the transportation board, also praised the changes: "I think this is an expansion of service and an expansion of hours. That's what people have been asking for."

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