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Worries of life without a bus

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Howard County officials and transit advocates are strongly opposing a state proposal to reduce and eliminate bus routes, but Vera Harris, 57, doesn't have time to do more than worry.

For most of her 17 years working at Regency Drycleaning Service in the Lotte Plaza shopping center, Harris has left her Northeast Baltimore home before dawn each day to catch the first of three buses to the job in Ellicott City, arriving by 7 a.m.

Now, pointing to high costs and low ridership, state transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan is planning to eliminate the No. 150 line that Harris rides daily to Ellicott City, reduce service on the No. 320 route on U.S. 1 and eliminate the No. 311 express line between Baltimore and Columbia.

The proposed changes, the topic of public hearings in Columbia tomorrow and Jessup on Tuesday, are part of the first systemwide Maryland Transit Administration restructuring of bus routes in 30 years. State officials want to use the savings to bolster service on heavily used routes

"What we are proposing to do is maximize service and make it as efficient as possible," said Flanagan, a former Howard County delegate. "Howard County has a responsibility. Employers have a responsibility to do problem-solving when it comes to transportation."

Under the state's proposal, commuter buses would no longer stop at the Broken Land Parkway park-and-ride lot, and one morning southbound and one afternoon northbound trip would be dropped from the No. 320 route. In addition, the No. 320 bus service would cease at Patuxent Range Road.

Without the MTA No. 150 bus, Harris said, she will have to quit a job she loves.

State officials say Harris is one of only about 143 riders a day on that route, which costs taxpayers a daily subsidy of $8.71 per rider. They want to end the route in October.

All three lines in jeopardy typically carry 15 to 17 riders per trip, instead of the maximum 55. Daily subsidies range from $6.50 to $10.80 per rider.

But Harris, who lives alone and has no car, said the service is crucial for her employment at Regency, where she makes $9.50 an hour plus benefits, and where she said she is treated like family.

"This is the only bus to get me here to work," Harris said.

Nancy Puls, owner of the 37-year-old family-owned cleaners, said employees like Harris are hard to find.

"It would be a big loss," Puls said about the possibility that Harris would have to quit her job. "It's very difficult to find employees."

Flanagan suggested that Harris could get to work by taking the No. 15 bus to downtown Baltimore, light rail from there to the Baltimore-Washington International station and then Howard Transit to Ellicott City.

Told later that if she boarded her first bus at Belair Road and Erdman Avenue at 5:12 a.m. she wouldn't arrive at Normandy Shopping Center -- where she boards a Howard Transit for Lotte Plaza -- until 8:31 a.m., he acknowledged that the trip is "not feasible."

"She's heroic in the effort she makes to get to work. We take that very seriously," Flanagan said. He said state planners are working to solve as many individual problems as they can.

Opposing any changes

From Howard County Executive James N. Robey to the county Chamber of Commerce, Howard officials have condemned the proposals, arguing they will hurt efforts to redevelop U.S. 1, hurt businesses that can't get entry-level workers and leave people with no other transportation options stranded.

Officials also have requested more time for public comment on the proposed changes -- something Flanagan indicated he will not do because he wants to put them into effect while weather is warm and before daylight-saving time ends.

In a letter to Flanagan on June 6, Robey said the proposed changes "represent a false economy" for both the state and the county.

"I think it's a mistake," he said in an interview. "It will affect our impact on [U.S.] 1 and it could affect what we're trying to do at Fort Meade."

Robey, a Democrat, has funneled nearly $4 million yearly into the Howard Transit bus system -- partly to help businesses who can't find local workers in pricey Howard.

Howard Transit took over some parts of MTA bus routes that were eliminated two years ago, and Robey said "it is vitally important that we expand access to suburban employment opportunities throughout the Baltimore region."

Del Karfonta, chairman of the county Chamber of Commerce and an executive vice president of Columbia Bank, said businesses want more transportation options for workers, not fewer.

"It's very difficult, even when they have their own transportation," he said about attracting employees to Howard.

Richard Kirchner, founder of a private group called Transportation Advocates, said the changes represent more than a 50 percent reduction in Howard County's MTA service for commuters.

"It represents a body blow to the core bus service established in Howard County over the years," he said. The group is rallying opposition to the proposal.

Carol Filipczak, a county transportation board member, said one of the worst aspects of the proposal is the constant changing of routes and service.

"It leaves service undependable -- here today and gone tomorrow," she said. And for the county's U.S. 1 redevelopment to succeed, "we really need the buses there from the beginning."

Breaking connections

Reducing MTA bus service breaks connections to local Howard Transit routes, too, Filipczak said.

"Howard County is not an island," she said. "We need access to Baltimore and D.C. as well."

Harris takes a more personal view of the state's plan.

"A lot of people who want to make these changes don't ride the bus," she said.

She said the changes will force more people off buses and into cars or -- like her -- out of a job.

"They're not putting people on the bus, they're taking them off," she said. "I don't understand it."

Public hearings on the proposed changes to bus routes in Howard County are scheduled for 7 p.m. tomorrow at Kahler Hall, 5440 Old Tucker Row, Columbia, and at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Holiday Inn at 7900 Washington Blvd., Jessup.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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