Howard board votes to ask for restoration of bus service funding

Sunday riders' impassioned pleas spur action

May 27, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

The Howard County transportation board voted unanimously Tuesday night to ask County Executive Ken Ulman to restore funding for Sunday bus service next fiscal year after hearing impassioned pleas from about 40 Howard Transit riders and one bus driver at a public hearing.

Although the budget for fiscal 2011 is already adopted and a second public hearing on transit cuts is scheduled for June 22, board chairwoman Carol Filipczak said the panel must act now, without waiting for the next hearing or $1.9 million worth of higher fares and service cuts to take effect July 1. Continuing Sunday service, which provides buses every two hours, would cost $166,000, she said.

"Rest assured, we'll do what we can," Filipczak told the crowd, and four other board members agreed without debate to ask for Sunday service to continue. She speculated that Ulman could find that much money "somewhere else in the budget."

Ulman's $1.4 billion budget keeps intact this year's $7.7 million contribution in county funding for the bus system, but rising costs in a lean year forced a base fare increase from $1.50 to $2, the loss of all service on Sunday and elimination of the Blue route from Harper's Choice to Clarksville, he has said. The Red and Yellow express buses will also be cut. Eliminating buses also means the loss of service for people who depend on the wheelchair lifts on the affected buses.

In addition, all riders who use the by-appointment paratransit service are to pay $2.50 per ride. That means some who now pay nothing because of their income will have to pay $5 for each round trip.

Ulman, an advocate for more mass transit, has said revenues are too tight to keep paying the increasing costs of the service. Transportation officials have said they have an everage of 120 riders per route each Sunday, and 17 riders on weekdays on the Blue route to Clarksville. Ulman announced Tuesday that he's forming a committee to study a state-sponsored consultant's report and find new, more efficient ways to restructure the county's transit system. On Wednesday, Ulman said he would consider the board's request.

The problem, riders told the board, is that those who use the buses have no affordable alternative.

"This is the working poor here. It's a sad situation," said Diana Thomas, 42, a mother of four children who said she depends on the buses when her car isn't working. Others spent up to 90 minutes traveling by the infrequent buses to the county's temporary offices in east Columbia to testify, though several said they knew the decision to cut service and raise fares had already been made.

Even John F. Powell Jr., chief of administration for Central Maryland Regional Transit, which operates the bus system in Howard and parts of Anne Arundel counties, said Sunday ridership would always be poor because the buses come only once every two hours.

"It's only going to be used by people who don't have another option," he said.

Donna Dunbar, who lives near Howard Community College and works at the Hickory Ridge Giant, said a cab from her home to the store would cost her $8 each way, and if she can't make it, she'll lose hours or possibly her job.

"We are asking you to please, please, do not eliminate Sunday service," she said. "I work Sundays, and I depend on this bus to get to work."

Board member Ed Stollof then offered to personally take Dunbar to work if she needs help on Sundays, since he lives near her.

Kathy Harris, a driver on the Blue route to River Hill Village Center and Clarksville, spoke for some of her regular riders, pointing to several people in the audience whom she takes to jobs at a fast-food restaurant in Clarksville.

"I've had people crying" on her bus when they learned about the cuts, she said. "There are people who don't speak English and don't understand the bus is going to be cut off. We're cutting off our nose to spite our face. We are better than this in Howard County."

Amanda Bayless, a social worker who helps 36 dialysis patients who use the buses, said that some will face paying $60 more each month for the paratransit fares. "When you have an income of $700 a month, that's burdensome," she said.

Kathryn Lear, a mother of two, said she lives in Long Reach and uses the bus on Sundays to get to church in Wilde Lake, take her children, ages 8 and 11, to the pool in summer and to shop. "I won't be able to take them to the pool at all," she said.

Renee Ring of Clarksville said she rides the Blue route to HCC, where she is studying to become a teacher. Recently laid off, she can't afford a car, she said.

Garrett Taylor of Ellicott City said she uses the Yellow express. Cutting the service "punishes the ones who depend on it."

Tina Cole, a Howard County resident of 40 years who doesn't drive, said she worked for the Rouse Co. and walked many places from her home in Wilde Lake. Years ago, she asked Columbia's founder, James W. Rouse, what to do about transportation.

"He said, 'Tina, get involved,' " and she did, Cole said.

"You have no idea what a difference this made in our lives," she said of the bus system, which began in the 1970s with the Rouse-operated Columbus that circulated only in Columbia.

"Columbia is a progressive city. Every year we make somebody's list for best place to live in the world," she said. "Surely, the bus service is part of that quality of life."

Added Jan Hansen: "There ought to be a way to compromise" and still retain some of the service slated for elimination. "I'm blind. They won't let me drive," the 64-year-old said. "I live on $900 a month."

Without the bus, or even with the higher fares for the disabled, her ability to volunteer at places such as the day center for the homeless on U.S. 1 will end. "This has been billed as a public hearing, but decisions have already been made. Don't call this a public hearing," she said.

Before adjourning, the board elected member Sharonlee Vogel as its next chair, since Filipczak's term is expiring.

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