Ulman pushing for reorganized transit system in county

New coordinator recommended to steer effort

December 04, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is moving on three fronts to reorganize the regional bus system known locally as Howard Transit, which also connects to the city of Laurel and to Arundel Mills and BWI Thurgood Marshal Airport.

Ulman is studying a citizens committee's recommendations on the subject and wants to hire a new, higher-profile county transit coordinator. Meanwhile, the county is moving to buy a vacant 6-acre bus maintenance facility in Savage to serve as a publicly owned base for the system.

The planning is intended to help deal with rising transit system costs even as the need for public transportation rises along with road congestion. Extensive redevelopment in central Columbia and along the U.S. 1 corridor fueled by federal job growth around nearby Fort Meade could produce severe traffic congestion without a better transit system. But rising bus costs forced an increase in fares and service cuts this fiscal year.

Riders are typically workers, seniors, students and others who don't or can't drive. Buses are infrequent and travel is often slow.

"I don't see us building any more major highways in the county," said Paul Farragut, co-chair of the six-month-old citizens committee and the retired director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. Putting more emphasis on a better-organized, more efficient transit system, he said, could save money and attract more riders, perhaps with monthly ticket buyers for commuter buses to specific employers like the National Security Agency or Fort Meade.

Howard residents account for about 70 percent of the system's users, and the county paid $7.7 million this year to help run it. Service for handicapped riders who use a by-appointment paratransit system is especially expensive, according to the committee report, accounting for 8 percent of the trips but taking up 41 percent of the budget.

The county took over bus transportation in 1996 from the former Rouse Co.'s smaller ColumBus system, which served Columbia.

Ulman said he hasn't had time to fully study the committee report, which he received Wednesday, but already likes at least one recommendation.

"Where we're heading is an office that reports directly to me on a higher level that would be more proactive and aggressive," he said. Ulman said he'd like to bring in "a top-notch director" to fill that job. Carl Balser, the county's senior transportation planner, retired last summer and his job, and one other transportation planning post, have remained vacant. The committee suggested hiring a contract transportation official to help sort through the options of what Ulman agreed would likely be a "multistep process."

Currently, according to the group's report, the system is run by three separate organizations, including eight county planners (with two jobs vacant) who supervise nonprofit Central Maryland Regional Transit, which has 21 full-time equivalent jobs, and First Transit, the private contractor that hires the drivers and operates the 57 vehicles. There are 130 full-time jobs overall, but the system has grown complex enough that the county planners who oversee it are too tied up with daily operations to do much on long-term plans.

The citizens committee couldn't agree on one preferred way to proceed and recommended creation of a new nonprofit regional suburban transit authority or a Howard County takeover of management of the system, to run it directly or hire a contractor for daily operations. First Transit's contract runs until 2012, and a regional authority would require a change in state law. Either option would depend on cooperation and added funding from the state, Anne Arundel and perhaps Prince George's counties, and the city of Laurel. The report suggests that Ulman should do the "political work" to explore those possibilities.

Sharonlee Vogel, a member of the committee and of the county transportation board who also heads a private group called Transportation Advocates, said she likes the regional authority idea more than a county takeover of the system.

"That is something I'm not sure the county would want to do because that's a lot of hiring of bodies," Vogel said about direct county operation, which would sell bus service to the other jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, Howard County officials hope to soon complete the purchase of a long-sought, publicly owned maintenance facility that they think will give more private transit operators a chance to bid for the bus contract. Without the facility, county planning director Marsha McLaughlin said, only one or two contractors that have their own maintenance and storage facility can compete.

"After a very long search, we have the perfect property," McLaughlin said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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