Howard bus service

A pedestrian walks by the regional transit agency bus at the Columbia Mall near Sears. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun / March 26, 2014)

Convinced it can spend less money yet provide better bus service, Howard County plans to cut out the organization that provides transportation to thousands of Central Marylanders each day and replace it with a new transit agency.

Howard County officials are luring partners such as Prince George's County, Annapolis and Laurel to the new Regional Transportation Agency, promising lower costs and more control over operational decisions. On Thursday, Anne Arundel County joined Howard's venture.

The plan's supporters say it will open the door to increased suburban bus service, but opponents see it as a regional power play by Howard officials that hasn't been fully vetted by state officials.

Joining the new agency would require most of the municipalities to follow Howard's lead in ending long-standing contracts with the nonprofit that has managed regional bus services for a quarter-century, Central Maryland Regional Transit. For its part, CMRT is fighting back, enlisting allies in the General Assembly to block the move.

The likely reconciliation of the House and Senate versions of the state budget this weekend could set back Howard County's plan or move it forward.

Language in the Senate's version of the state budget, introduced by Sen. James "Ed" DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel Democrat and chairman of the Senate's transportation budget subcommittee, would block the transition until a state-backed task force produces a report on the best path forward for regional bus services. Similar language was stripped from the House budget.

"The state should have a role," DeGrange said. "That's what their expertise is."

CMRT serves about 2 million people a year, operating local bus routes between Laurel, College Park, Columbia, Arundel Mills and Odenton; regional paratransit services; subscription commuter buses between Northern Virginia and Fort Meade; and Howard's local Howard Transit routes.

Howard provides more than 70 percent of CMRT's transit budget, though that includes funding the county receives from the state. Unless DeGrange's language survives, Howard's departure from CMRT's system may force the nonprofit to close its bus services or drastically increase costs for the remaining jurisdictions it serves.

Costs are part of what's driving this, Howard officials say.

If all the jurisdictions join the new RTA, their combined busing costs would drop from $23 million to about $20 million — with savings from improved economies of scale and the elimination of some jobs, including at CMRT, said John Powell Jr., Howard's transportation administrator and one of the architects of the new agency.

In announcing Anne Arundel was joining the venture, county officials said they expect it will result in $2 million in savings for the two counties.

Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman said in a statement that the arrangement will give both counties "more effective management over operating costs" and "provide expanded service areas to public transit customers at a lower unit cost."

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman called the partnership "a huge step forward."

In contrast, CMRT officials and their supporters said Howard's takeover is happening too quickly and with too little oversight.

James Perez, CMRT's chief executive, said Howard's plans represent a unilateral threat to the independent system oversight that CMRT provides and leaves the nonprofit unsure whether its doors will remain open beyond July 1, when its contracts with multiple jurisdictions expire.

H. Walter Townshend, president of the Baltimore-Washington Corridor Chamber and a CMRT board member who helped launch the nonprofit, said he questions why Howard is "moving this way when there is a system in place that's been operating for a long time and was doing a great job."

The business chamber founded CMRT's predecessor, the Corridor Transportation Corp., in 1987 after identifying a need for public transportation in the region as institutions and companies began popping up and growing between Baltimore and Washington.

In 2010, the CTC separated from the business chamber and the CMRT was formed. In recent years, it has transported nearly 2 million people throughout eastern Howard, western Anne Arundel and beyond with a mix of federal, state and local funding.

Then, about two years ago, Ulman hired Powell, then the CMRT head, to lead the county's newly formed Office of Transportation.