A $4.7 million plan to buy and use three electric buses for public transit in Columbia was rescued by Howard Community College officials, who agreed last week to host a recharging station for the vehicles after owners of The Mall in Columbia refused.
The three 35-passenger vehicles would be the first of their kind used for public transit in the United States, said John W. Powell Jr., CEO of Central Maryland Regional Transit, a nonprofit group that administers the transit system covering Howard County, Laurel City and western Anne Arundel County.
"It's used in Europe and at theme parks like Disneyland," Powell said, explaining that electric induction, which is like placing a cordless phone in a charging stand, is "a well-proven technology, not a research project."
Elizabeth Kreider, director of Local Transportation Support for the Maryland Transit Administration, said through a spokesman that the project is significant because "this is a nonprofit being creative and innovative. This is taking green to the next level."
The buses may eventually become the much-discussed "central Columbia circulator," moving people around the redeveloped, more urban downtown. The proposal was developed by the Central Maryland Regional Transit and approved for funding by the federal government. Now CMRT must ask the state to enter the project in the Federal Transit Administration's grant approval process to actually get the money, Powell said. The buses take at least a year to be built and delivered once they are ordered, he added.
Meanwhile, finding a spot for the charging station was "critical" to going forward with an application to the MTA, Powell said. If approved, most of the money — up to $3.8 million — would come from a federal stimulus grant, with the rest in state and local matching funds, he said.
General Growth Properties, which owns the mall, isn't certain how redevelopment will progress there and wasn't willing to commit to the expensive recharging station in a fixed location that might be difficult to move later, said Greg Harris, a spokesman for the firm. The transit system's main bus stop is behind the Sears store at the mall.
Marsha McLaughlin, county planning director, said she had envisioned the college as a backup option to the mall, and was not upset by General Growth Properties' refusal. "We're excited" the project is moving forward, she said.
County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who also heard Powell comment on the college's action at a Thursday morning Transportation Advocates meeting at the Florence Bain Senior Center, said GGP's decision "doesn't bother me. It's better to be at the college" because "it falls into the public realm instead of being on private property."
College board members approved having the station Wednesday night, said Lynn Coleman, vice president for administration and finance. "I think it will work out well," she said, noting that the college is on the transit system's "green" route. Powell said the college will get a $50,000 grant for students to create stations to inform students and visitors about the program.
The unique nature of the all-electric, pollution-free technology is what attracted federal stimulus money for what is seen as a demonstration project that could be a national model, Powell said. The buses, which cost up to $900,000 each, will replace the three oldest diesel vehicles in the county's transit fleet. New diesels would cost roughly half the electric bus price, but county and college officials said they are glad to "go green."
The buses will initially ply the system's "green" route, which serves the college, Howard County General Hospital, the mall and Wilde Lake. The vehicles would recharge for three to four minutes during each cycle as they stop along Campus Drive. The recharging station will cost about $200,000, Powell said, and the bus stops over twin electric coils and lowers a metal plate to absorb the energy.