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Regional bus services shaken up as Howard launches new transit agency

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.

"The first thing [Ulman] said to me — probably before even 'Hi' — was, 'You need to make the Howard Transit services more effective and more efficient,'" Powell said.

Powell said he immediately set his sights on his former employer, which he thought was an unnecessary middle man. In Powell's mind, CMRT's board, which contracts bus services out to Cincinnati-based First Transit, had never given Howard, Anne Arundel, Laurel and Prince George's officials enough say in operations, despite the fact that they were supplying a large portion of CMRT's $14 million annual operating budget.

Looking to bypass CMRT, Howard put out a request for proposals for a partner company to operate a new transit agency directly for the county.

First Transit won the bid. Under the new contract, it will operate and manage the entire system through a wholly-owned subsidiary called Transit Management of Central Maryland.

First Transit will receive a flat payment each year — about $550,000 the first year — while the subsidiary will work under a profitless "expense reimbursement contract," Powell said. "Whatever the expenses are for the year is how much revenue and funding they receive."

Savings estimates are based on the combined cost of the annual fee plus the operating costs paid to the subsidiary, Powell said.

All participating jurisdictions will get two seats on a commission that will shape policy and goals and hold First Transit accountable, Powell said.

George Cardwell, Anne Arundel's transportation planning administrator, said his county studied the proposal carefully and decided it would provide cost savings in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Meanwhile, sticking with CMRT without Howard would have meant increased costs, Cardwell said.

State Sen. James Robey, a Howard County Democrat and former county executive, said Anne Arundel's buy-in was "critical" and gave him increased confidence in the new system because transit is "a regional thing, and Howard County is not an island unto itself."

Though a longtime CMRT supporter, Robey said progress can't be blocked — especially in a region where residents are begging for more public transit options.

"If we can do it more efficiently and more cost-effectively, gosh, how could you say no to something like this?" he said.

The new RTA system is set to launch July 1, the day after the counties' contracts with CMRT expire. On Friday, officials broke ground on a new $14.8 million, 22,000-square-foot regional transit facility in Annapolis Junction that will house RTA vehicles and an estimated 200 employees.

Several officials, including U.S. Reps. Elijah Cummings, C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes, spoke at the event in favor of the new system and of the importance of improving regional public transit options.

Wilson Parran, the state's deputy transportation secretary for administration and operations, said the project reflects the commitment of Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration to "to work with the regional partners to come up with common-sense solutions to address Maryland's unique transportation challenges."

Other officials have been far less supportive.

State Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents several of the jurisdictions served by CMRT's 15 regional bus routes, criticized Howard's approach, saying it is "just unfortunate that Howard County seems to be not interested in working in a cooperative way with the state and the other jurisdictions."

Rosapepe said he will work to make sure DeGrange's budget language survives.

Beyond the political battle, officials in the local jurisdictions being courted by Howard say they remain undecided.

Prince George's County's public works and transportation director Darrell Mobley said in a statement the county is "currently reviewing" Howard's proposal, with its priority being "the uninterrupted and continued delivery of quality transit services" for local residents.

In Laurel, a resolution that would authorize city officials to sign an agreement joining the new system was introduced before the City Council on Monday. Kristie Mills, the city's administrator, said the city council has been "monitoring what's been going on" and will take up the resolution again during a second public hearing April 14.

In Annapolis, which operates its own buses, Howard's proposal has been received warmly by city officials, but has drawn criticism from the union that represents city bus operators, which believes the plan would cost jobs and cause lower wages.

Powell said if Annapolis joins the RTA, current city bus drivers would have to apply for new positions, but wages, pensions and other benefits could be maintained at current levels if Annapolis is willing to cover any extra costs.

Mayor Mike Pantelides said the city is interested in joining the new agency and enticed by the idea of saving money, but isn't ready to commit.

"We want to run the numbers to see how it would affect us," he said. "We're not going to rush into anything unless we have all the facts."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Pamela Wood and Amanda Yeager contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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