Harford Transit is working with area employers to increase its ridership and improve travel for those who rely on the bus to get to jobs throughout the county.
Transit administrators expect to supply human resources departments at numerous companies with easier-to-read schedules, assistance in planning commutes to jobs and fare books that can be sold to riders at their job sites.
Harford Community College, for example, purchases fare books in large blocks and makes them available to students and staff, some of whom are eligible for discounted rates.
"We are trying to be on the move and offer our services to the general population," said Pat Fielder, Harford's RideShare and community resources coordinator.
At a Transportation Management Association meeting last week, Fielder presented a travel training session. The demonstration showed how complicated commuting in the county can be. The association meets five times annually at the HEAT (Higher Education and Applied Technology) Center in Aberdeen, a location without a bus stop.
Only one of the dozen in attendance had ever taken a Harford Transit bus. Few knew the fare was $1, with discounts for senior citizens and students.
Fares are not considered a major deterrent to taking the bus, especially since employers and employees may be eligible for tax credits from the Maryland Transit Administration's Commuter Choice program. Participating companies make passes or vouchers available to their employees, who can save as much as $2,000 annually on the cost of getting to work.
The program, which includes several options, allows businesses a tax credit on the cost of providing commuter benefits of up to $50 a month for each employee. Employees can also purchase the passes through a pretax salary deduction.
The routes, schedules and timeliness of the buses can frustrate riders.
Several at the meeting were stumped when Fielder passed out schedules and asked them to map a route from Harford Community College to Edgewood. After poring over arrivals, departures and routes, one participant suggested a trip that, including transfers, would take nearly three hours.
"This is quite an exercise and much more complicated than I thought," said Carl D. Kilhoffer, the association's chairman. "Harford is still rural and suffering through growth and expansion."
Many discovered that a commute from Edgewood to a job at Harford Mall would take about an hour and 10 minutes on the bus. A motorist could make the trip in less than a half-hour.
"I have heard many people say they have to buy a car because they have no other way to get to work," said Kevin Racine, a Havre de Grace resident and public transportation advocate.
As the local service tries to increase ridership, the Maryland Transit Administration might have to curtail several of its lines from Harford County to Baltimore early next year. At public hearings throughout the metropolitan area, including two in Harford County this month, MTA officials have discussed proposed cuts to a service that has grown significantly in the past few years.
"There are those who would like to attend those hearings but can't due to the lack of transportation," Racine said. "MTA has a financial crisis on its hands, but eliminating buses is not the answer."
Harford Transit buses run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. Limited evening service, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., is scheduled to begin tomorrow for eligible riders - those who are disabled, elderly or low-income - who make reservations one workday ahead. Funds are unavailable to add weekend runs on the routes, Fielder said. But companies can consider van pools to transport workers in the off hours.
"Money is the issue," she said. "It is that simple. The desire for increased service on weekends is there. Planning is in place, but we are without the resources."
For the third consecutive year, ridership has increased on Harford's public transportation system, rising to nearly 300,000 passengers in 2007. The service operates bus routes, mostly along the Route 22 and U.S. 40 corridors in Harford's southern and central areas, on an annual budget of nearly $6 million. Bus lines serve the population areas surrounding the county's three municipalities and Edgewood.
The county is completing a study that looks at expanding mass transit, both rail and bus lines, to meet the transportation demands of BRAC, the nationwide military base expansion that could bring as many as 10,000 jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Public transportation will play a significant role in the influx of jobs and families to the post, particularly since many are relocating from areas where mass transit is heavily used.
Growth at the base could lead to an increase in ridership, possible Sunday hours and the creation of more cross-county routes. The transit company's long-range plans include a route across the Susquehanna River into Cecil County.
Information: www.harfordtransit.org or 410-612-1621.