Howard buys bus maintenance facility in Savage for $5 million

Move part of county effort to boost public transportation profile

February 24, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County purchased a 6-acre bus maintenance facility in Savage, and the County Council is scheduled to vote on a request for $6 million in earmarked federal funds to renovate it — part of a series of moves designed to boost the profile of public transportation in the county.

The $5 million land deal closed last week, giving the county a facility to store and maintain transit buses serving Howard, Anne Arundel County and Laurel City, county planning and zoning director Marsha McLaughlin told the council Monday night. Public ownership of the facility will allow bidding from a wider range of private bus firms, something county officials hope will save money on the local Howard Transit bus system. Until now, any bus system operator had to have its own maintenance facility, limiting those who could bid.

"It's perfect in terms of location," McLaughlin told the council about the facility at a public hearing. She asked the council to approve a resolution requesting the $6 million in already earmarked federal money from the Maryland Transit Administration. If approved, the money would be used to build maintenance and administrative facilities at the Corridor Road site in Savage, which she said is now "just a shell."

At the same time, County Executive Ken Ulman is asking the council to approve creation of a new Office of Transportation, elevating the function from a low-profile home in the county bureaucracy to a top spot in his administration.

County budget director Raymond S. Wacks told the council that four existing positions, three of which are now vacant, would be shifted from Planning and Zoning to create the new office. "We're not creating any new positions," he said.

If the council approves the legislation and also approves the salaries as part of the fiscal 2012 budget, a new planning manager would be hired to run the office, probably for about the same pay as Carl Balser, the county transportation planning chief who retired last summer. The other jobs include a fiscal coordinator, a clerk and someone to monitor commuter programs. Wacks said Balser had little time to do broad transportation planning because he was tied up overseeing the Howard Transit system. The new office would separate the functions, leaving overall planning under McLaughlin.

Councilman Greg Fox pointed out that reclassifying the pay grade to include a higher range for the top transit job could mean more costs in future years, but Wacks said there would be no short-term cost increase.

"Never worry about the long term," Fox said in response. Wacks said any difference in pay grade for the new top position would be clear in Ulman's proposed budget, due out April 20.

Paul Farragut, co-chair of a citizens commission that recommended creating the new, higher-profile office, said it is needed to help deal with growing transportation congestion, especially with large increases in federal employment around Fort Meade and the National Security Agency.

"We think this is critically important," Farragut said, adding, "We need to give the executive some flexibility." A transportation official who can easily deal with top state and federal counterparts would provide that. The new office was also supported by the League of Women Voters and the Howard County Citizens Association.

Grace Kubofcik, president of the LWV in Howard County, said her group has backed creation of such an office for years.

"We didn't care what you called it, but it should be up at that level," she said.

The council also heard from appointees about a proposed redistricting commission and a charter review commission, both required periodically by law.

Although total population figures for Howard in the 2010 census are available, there are not yet numbers by County Council district. Overall, the county's population rose by about 39,000 people, or nearly 16 percent.

The seven-member redistricting commission is to recommend how to redraw County Council district boundaries based on the 2010 census's population figures, though the council members have the final say. Three commission members were nominated by each of the two major political parties and the council, dominated by Democrats, chose Larry Walker, a former school board candidate, to be the chairman.

Redistricting is intended to ensure that each county resident has roughly equal representation after each census count, though both political parties jockey for advantage through the process of drawing new district lines.

Walker told the council that he is a good listener and would try to lead the group to a consensus.

"You're promising a consensus?" Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, asked Walker. The question provoked laughter from the audience.

"I won't call that a promise, but I'll do my best," Walker said.

The charter commission, part of a required review every eight years, is to have 15 members who are to re-examine the county's constitution to see what may need changing or updating. Their recommendations are also offered to the County Council, which has the final say on what, if any, issues are put before the voters in 2012. The last process in 2003-'04 produced only technical language changes. The nominees include nine Democrats, four Republicans, one Green Party member and one unaffiliated member.

Votes on all the issues are scheduled for March 7.

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