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State requires study of regional bus system before funding new Howard agency

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Howard County will move ahead with the launch of its new regional transit agency this summer despite a legislative decision in Annapolis to withhold state funding from the operation until it is studied further.

David Nitkin, a county spokesman, said riders using Howard Transit and other local bus services "will keep getting the best service possible," even if that means the county has to temporarily foot the bill while waiting on the state.

"We can and we will work to minimize the effects that this funding delay will have on customers," Nitkin said.

The reassurances come after legislators in Annapolis this weekend required the study, due in August, through language inserted into the state budget.

Howard plans to launch its new Regional Transportation Agency July 1, Nitkin said. The county built RTA to supplant longstanding nonprofit Central Maryland Regional Transit and operate buses in the region with lower overhead costs, Howard officials have said.

CMRT currently serves about 2 million people a year, operating local bus routes between Laurel, College Park, Columbia, Arundel Mills and Odenton, as well as other paratransit, regional commuter and Howard's local Howard Transit routes.

Anne Arundel County has signed on to join Howard's new agency, while Prince George's County and the cities of Laurel and Annapolis are considering the move.

Howard officials said the RTA will save the local jurisdictions millions of dollars, while critics of the plan have criticized it as a power play by Howard that will kill the CMRT, which has operated with success for decades.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel Democrat and chairman of the Senate's transportation budget subcommittee, said he introduced the budget language requiring the study because he felt the state should have a larger role in shaping a new regional bus system.

The language requires James Smith, the state's transportation secretary, to appoint a "study group" to examine the matter and "help ensure that State and federal funds are expended in the most efficient and effective manner."

The group will be composed of one representative each from the House and Senate, the Maryland Transit Administration, CMRT and each local jurisdiction involved, as well as members of the public.

Erin Henson, a transportation department spokeswoman, said Smith has not selected anyone for the task force yet.

CMRT's bus routes are funded by the local jurisdictions they serve, which then apply for state grants to reimburse up to 50 percent of their costs. While the state will not be able to provide such reimbursements for RTA expenses while the study is pending, it could possibly reimburse Howard and Anne Arundel for RTA expenditures after the study is completed, Henson said.

Nitkin said the county will be finalizing its contract with operator First Transit soon and is confident in the RTA. It hopes to use the state study "to raise understanding of the RTA and the benefits we'll provide both financially and operationally," he said.

Alexandra Dupree, a CMRT spokeswoman, said the nonprofit was still waiting Monday for a legal interpretation of the budget language and what it will mean for CMRT.

krector@baltsun.com

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