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Powell looking forward to leading new county Office of Transportation

When John Powell Jr. moved to Columbia almost three years ago to oversee the Central Maryland Regional Transit Corp., he thought he had settled into his last job.

Then earlier this year, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman came calling with a tempting offer. He needed someone to head the county's new Office of Transportation.

Powell accepted.

"I certainly think that's going to be my last job," Powell said.

Powell, 63, will start work as Howard County's first Office of Transportation administrator on April 23. He will earn $120,827 a year.

"I'm excited to work for Ken Ulman; I'm excited to work for the people I've grown to respect while I've been here at CMRT," Powell said.

He added: "And it's also going to be interesting for someone who's never worked in a true government environment, who's worked with a business acumen his whole life, to work within that framework."

CMRT, a nonprofit regional transit system that oversees Howard Transit, HT Ride and Connect-A-Ride services, is funded in large part by the Howard County government. It serves two million riders a year in Howard, northern Prince George's Countyand western Anne Arundel County.

Ulman said Powell's "knowledge of the interworking of transit operations is really critical."

But Powell's new role will be about more than managing Howard's transit and paratransit systems.

Ulman said he wants Powell and the Office of Transportation to bring all the areas of transportation — roads, bridges, buses, the MARC train system, bicycle lanes, pedestrian connections, etc. — into one focus.

"It's important to have a point person pulling it all together, and I think we can improve upon what we have been doing," Ulman said.

Sharonlee Vogel, chairwoman of the Transportation Advocates of Howard County, said she thinks Powell and the new office will be great for Howard.

"It brings somebody at a high level in the county to ensure that transportation is thought of in the initial stages of all kinds of things, development and redevelopment, rather than after the fact when it's virtually impossible (to incorporate)," she said.

In addition to Powell, the Office of Transportation will have three full-time employees. Roberta Jackson, who serves as the rideshare coordinator in the Department of Planning and Zoning, and two vacant positions within DPZ will be moved to the new office.

'Getting enough service'

Having worked closely with Howard County government through CMRT, Powell said he sees its strong commitment to transportation through its transit and paratransit services that serve about one million passengers a year.

"The challenge is getting enough service out there so people will make a choice to get out of the automobile and onto transit ... to ensure that the service is going to where people are and where people are trying to get to," he said.

One of the ways in which Howard could enhance its service, Powell said, is by increasing the frequency of when its buses circulate.

"It's difficult to get individuals out of an automobile when a bus is only running every 60 minutes," he said.

However, Powell noted, increasing service is costly and it's unclear how much of a demand there is for it.

Vogel said she would like to see Powell and the office re-evaluate all the county's bus routes and make sure they get into neighborhoods that need service because "the bottom line is transit exists to move people."

An important element of the Office of Transportation, Powell said, will be its role in helping the county reach out to other stakeholders and develop a regional transit solution.

"Right now you have all these areas, except for CMRT, really operating their own transit operations," Powell said.

One of the first tasks Powell be responsible for is to get the county-owned transit facility in Savage up and running by the July 1, 2013 target date. All of the buses under CMRT, as well as 33 vehicles from Anne Arundel County, will be stored at the facility.

A project that Powell already has been working with Howard County on through CMRT is an electric bus program. Howard Transit will have three electric buses that will get their power by parking over electric charging stations. The project is to start within the next few months, but Powell said it will take 18 months before the buses are in operation.

Also, Ulman said the county is conducting a study to see if it would be viable to have dedicated bus lanes on busy roads such as Route 32, Route 29 and Broken Land

Powell said he feels "invigorated" by his new position and is ready to start.

"I think it's a challenge," he said, "and I love challenges."

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