Howard Transit's aged fleet of buses is being replaced in a transformation that will significantly increase costs for county taxpayers, says Ray Ambrose, administrator of the system for Corridor Transportation Corp.
The bus system's proposed budget for next fiscal year calls for the county to spend $11.4 million -- unless additional state or federal funding becomes available -- more than doubling the $5.3 million the county spent in fiscal year 2007, which ended June 30. Officials have budgeted $7.9 million in county funds for the system this fiscal year.
Much of the increase will go for replacement buses that are needed at a time when ridership is rising. Most of the new vehicles will be diesel-electric hybrid vehicles, to lower fuel costs and pollution emissions.
Before this year, the system went for two years without spending money for replacement buses, while nearly a third of the fleet aged beyond normal standards of seven years or 200,000 miles.
Ambrose said one of the 26 existing fixed-route buses has traveled more than 500,000 miles, farther than the bus that caught fire in front of Howard Community College on Dec. 6.
"With that kind of age, we have to watch them every day," he said of the bright green vehicles, recalling his worry about passenger safety when the fire occurred.
No one was injured in the fire, which officials think might have been caused by a metal transmission line rubbing the insulation off a wire connected to the battery. The wire then might have burned and cracked the transmission line, spilling fluid on the hot engine.
All the other vehicles in the fleet have been examined, said Tom Driscoll, general manager for First Transit, the firm Corridor Transportation hired to operate the buses.
The goal is to replace 33 of the 53 buses used for scheduled fixed-route service and for para-transit, which serves handicapped people who make individual appointments for rides. The Howard Transit system has purchased four hybrid Toyota Prius sedans that are in use for handicapped people who don't need wheelchair service.
The county pays a major share of the system's overall budget. The $11.4 million it has projected for next fiscal year represents about 77 percent of the system's total $14.8 million spending plan.
County transportation planner Carl Balser said the county's share of expenses is rising because of escalating costs, the need to replace expensive vehicles, and little increase in federal and state funding. In fiscal year 2007, the system spent $495,000 for capital expenses, compared with $3.9 million budgeted for capital costs this year and a request for $4.3 million for the year starting July 1.
While expenses continue to rise, including fuel, labor and more frequent stops on some routes, the contributions from federal and state sources have changed minimally. Those sources provided $2.9 million in fiscal year 2007 and $3.2 million this fiscal year. About $3.4 million in federal and state money is budgeted for next year.
"Rates and costs go up, and the federal and state share has remained flat," Balser said.
Figures presented to the Howard County Transportation Board show that operating costs have more than doubled since 1998 for para-transit and rose 70 percent for the fixed-route service. Meanwhile, overall ridership has more than tripled from 255,218 in 1998 to a projected 912,000 this budget year.
On Dec. 18, the Transportation Board approved the system's fiscal year 2009 budget request and sent it to County Executive Ken Ulman for consideration.
The budget is tentative because of its timing, Balser said.
"When we put the county budget together, we have no idea what we'll get from the state," he said.
The General Assembly directed that more than $400 million of revenue from a sales tax increase go to the state's Transportation Trust Fund, but it's unclear if any of that money will come to Howard Transit.
Ambrose said money carried over from previous years is helping to pay for 20 new vehicles, including the four Prius sedans, three 14-passenger buses for para-transit use and four 18-passenger vehicles that can be used in both parts of the system.
Because of the time needed to manufacture them, most of the new vehicles haven't arrived. In addition, three new diesel motor buses costing $100,000 each should be in fixed-route service by February, Ambrose said. These should be the last nonhybrid buses purchased, he said.
Ulman had previously committed to spend county money to buy two diesel-electric hybrids to start the conversion to "green" technology, but those $500,000 vehicles won't be delivered until September, Ambrose said.
Ulman plans to seek reimbursement for at least part of that cost from federal and state sources. Four more hybrid buses, costing more than $250,000 each, are on order, Ambrose said.
Beyond that, the budget request for the next fiscal year includes $2.4 million for seven medium-size fixed-route buses and $1.2 million for six smaller para-transit vehicles.
"I think it's great," said Transportation Board Chairwoman Carol Filipczak about the new vehicles.
"We have to look at the need for buses," board member Sharonlee Vogel said.
Ambrose said that although hybrids are attractive for fuel and emissions savings, replacing their batteries when they eventually wear out will be expensive, costing up to $10,000 per vehicle.