Ulman vows to spend on buses

Executive also says federal funds should aid in widening of U.S. 29

January 10, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman pledged county money yesterday to begin replacing aging Howard Transit buses, and he told an early-morning gathering at the Bain Center in Columbia that federal money should speed a long-planned widening of northbound U.S. 29 approaching Columbia.

The executive said he met Monday with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who, he said will try to get federal money to complete the widening of U.S. 29 from the Middle Patuxent River near Route 216 to just north of Broken Land Parkway, where the two-lane highway produces bumper-to-bumper traffic nearly every afternoon during rush hour.

"We will be moving forward quickly," Ulman said, with the aid of federal money.

Design work on the nearly three-mile, $44 million state highway project began in mid-2005, said Erin Henson, a state transportation department spokeswoman. That work should be completed in late 2008, when construction can begin, she said.

Ulman said he plans to give transportation a higher profile in his administration.

Another priority, he added, is promoting greater use of alternative-fuel vehicles that reduce pollution.

At the same time, he said "money is not falling from the sky." A change in federal accounting standards for local governments has created a $477 million bill for health benefits for future Howard County government retirees; New York bond rating houses want to see money put aside for that purpose, along with a savings plan.

Still, he said, he is expecting to move forward on new buses.

"We are going to purchase several new vehicles using county funds," Ulman told a crowd of about 75 people in Harper's Choice for a meeting of the Transportation Advocates, a private group of mass transit boosters.

After the meeting, Ulman said he hopes the county can be reimbursed later. Normally federal funds pay 80 percent of replacement costs, and the state and local government split the remaining 20 percent.

The state has not approved purchase of new buses for two years, he said.

Ray Ambrose, the transit system administrator, said 13 of 50 vehicles used on the Howard Transit fixed routes and para-transit bus services for handicapped riders are beyond their planned useful lifespan of seven years and 200,000 miles.

"To go two years without any replacement buses has put us behind the eight ball," Ulman said. Ambrose said the age of vehicles and the likelihood of frequent repairs increase the system's operating costs.

Ulman said his administration would pay for a few of the expensive new vehicles - hopefully ones that use cleaner-burning alternative fuels, though he did not specify an exact number.

"We are committed to moving forward with clean vehicles. You will see much more of that in the near future," he said.

Ambrose said he plans to apply for state and federal grants to replace eight of the older buses, and hopes to get funding from the county for five more. The diesel buses cost $175,000 each, while cleaner-burning buses cost $250,000 each.

Members of the audience questioned the executive, and had a few suggestions.

Joel Broida of Town Center said he and friend Paul Verchinski are working on a plan to create a golf-cart transportation service to bring people who don't have vehicles from their homes in Wilde Lake, Kings Contrivance and Town Center - all villages without supermarkets - to nearby villages that do have grocery stores.

Ulman said he has told his department heads that his will be "an administration of creative, innovative ideas," but he reserved judgment on the golf-cart idea.

Edward Walter, 74, of Woodstock asked if the county can't use methane gas from landfills for fuel, instead of allowing it to be burned off - a suggestion discussed by Republican Christopher J. Merdon during last year's political campaign.

Ulman said he would like to do that but has been advised by public works officials that not enough gases are produced at the old New Cut Landfill or at Alpha Ridge to make fuel conversion practical.

The 32-year-old executive seemed impressed with Barry Childress, 50, of Mount Washington in Baltimore, who appeared in black-and-yellow cycling togs and said he had pedaled the 21.9 miles to the meeting. Childress said members of his Baltimore Spokes riding club want more maps and information about routes for bicyclists who want to come to Howard from surrounding areas to ride.

Childress said he got lost once en route, but used a small, battery operated Global Positioning System device to guide him rather than following a mapped route.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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