Gaps in Howard's aging public transit system signal need for overhaul

For six years, Mildred Libii, who lives in a low-income apartment complex for seniors in North Laurel, has waited for a bus stop near the complex at the far end of a wooded residential community.

Libii, 68, does not have a car and worries how she will manage her doctor's appointments, grab groceries or go out with a friend for a bite to eat. The nearest stop is 1.3 miles away.

"We are put back here in the boondocks with the woods," Libii said. " I feel like I'm in shackles here. This is not the quality of life I imagined."

Residents of Park View at Emerson say they were promised a bus stop when they moved in.

But the stop never came.

Built in 2009, Park View is an example of one of several gaps in Howard County's aging public transit system — a system built on the foundation of a more than 15-year-old skeleton that has not kept up to pace with the county's high population growth and density changes.

"Over the past 15 years, the county has really evolved from a rural county with a couple of dense pockets to very dense pockets," said Kathleen Donodeo, a transportation planner for the county's Office of Transportation. "Our transit system hasn't caught up."

Almost half of the fixed-route buses are at or beyond their useful life, according to a county report. Buses run on tight schedules based on old traffic patterns with little room for delays.

"If drivers hit three red lights in a row, they're going to be running 10 minutes late. There used to be time for breaks. But you don't have any catch up time any more," Donodeo said.

The system, which runs on an operating budget of $15 million, is run through the Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland, a transit authority that covers Howard, northern Prince George's County, Anne Arundel County and the city of Laurel.

In Howard, the system does not fully serve newer dense developments like Maple Lawn, a new neighborhood in Fulton that was once a farm, and Oxford Square, a neighborhood in Hanover. The Route 1 and Route 40 corridors, a growing area for housing and jobs, also have limited service.

Geographic gaps exist partly because the system is built on the foundation of ColumBus, a motley collection of minibuses run by the Columbia Association in the 1960s.

That local system, used to link Columbia's village centers, slowly evolved into the fifth largest transit program in the state. The RTA provides 1.7 million trips annually.

Since then, Howard County's population is growing at a faster rate than other jurisdictions in the state. The population has grown by 29 percent between 2000 and 2015, estimates show.

The county's transportation office plans to identify gaps and underserved areas in the aging system as part of a five-year plan required by the state.

That plan, last completed in 2009, is two years overdue because of limited state funding. The county plans to complete a draft by next spring.

"We are going to throw all of this up in the air and see if we can create a better system," said Clive Graham, the Office of Transportation's administrator.

John Powell, the office's former administrator, said there have been few major changes to routes.

"Population densities may have shifted. You also have the impact of changing traffic patterns. That's typical of all systems the size of the one in Howard County," Powell said.

The aging fleet of 42 fixed-route vehicles is a major concern, Graham said. Buses often break down. In some cases, the RTA swaps newer paratransit vehicles when vehicles for routine trips breakdown.

"We're using [paratransit] more than we should be to basically fill the gap," Graham said.

Roughly $3 million is spent on maintenance per year.

"We have to ask, is it worth paying $20,000 for a rebuilt engine for an old bus that is 11 to 12 years old. You have to make a calculated choice." Graham said. "But right now, we don't have that choice. If I don't put it in, I don't have a bus."

RTA's maintenance staff "work miracles on buses," Donodeo said, adding the buses do not pose any safety concerns.

This year, the county invested funds for at least seven buses that will hit the streets as early as next year.

"This is something we desperately need," Graham said.

Each bus costs around $300,000. County officials hope the new fleet for fixed routes will improve the quality of service and help fixed routes catch up with the improved paratransit fleet.

But despite the investment, the RTA needs around 20 vehicles for fixed routes and the need for another 10 will surface in the next couple of years, Donodeo said.

Limited state and county funding, a common challenge in transportation infrastructure nationwide, hampers major improvements in the system, county officials said.

"If they're cleared to go out there, they are fine. But there's a large likelihood that they will break down. Then that one is out of service and then everyone has to wait for another bus to come," Donodeo said.

Almost one-third of the budget funds paratransit services, which include curb-to-curb transit for people with disabilities, the elderly and other qualifying riders.

The county is considering more efficient options like shortening headways from one hour to 30 minutes as part of its overall plan.

Currently, riders must wait nearly an hour if they miss a bus.

"What we're striving for is a system of choice," Graham said.

At Park View at Emerson, residents said that despite the efforts by county and management to provide transit, the choices are still limited.

Decisions to add bus stops depend on funding and added time to the rest of the route, said Sue Poole, a spokeswoman for the RTA.

Instead of adding a bus stop at Park View at Emerson, which would make the route longer for all rides, county officials and management struck a temporary solution, a paratransit service that comes to their doorstep and must be scheduled one or two days in advance. But residents said this is not flexible enough to meet their needs.

"Two things really happen here. Either our cars wear or we wear out. And if you do, you can't drive anymore," said Charles Dyer, 80, a resident at Park View at Emerson. "We have a stop-gap solution, but we need a permanent one."

Victor Jimenez, RTA's mobility manager, said the paratransit service is a reliable and quick service that is an appropriate alternative to a bus stop.

"We get there to your door. In my eyes, it is a premium service for Howard County residents," Jimenez said.

Challenges at Park View signal the need for more careful planning, said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, who represents the resident .

"We can't just place a senior community in the woods and step back later and realize there is a problem with getting around," Terrasa said. "This is not good community planning."

County planners envision shifting the overall system from one primarily for those who cannot get around without it to a system of convenient choice.

"We're in a very planned community. It makes sense to have a very planned transportation system," Terrasa said.

The transportation office is also working on getting "more teeth" to make recommendations about transit as the county reviews development proposals.

"That doesn't do a lot for developments built years ago, but we can suggest best practices," Donodeo said.

Dayle Carpenter, a 77-year-old Park View resident, said she would not have moved in if she had known about the struggle for public transit.

"I didn't move here because I was ready for the farm. I moved here because it was a nice place," Carpenter said.

Graham hopes the county's next transit plan lays a vision for a more robust system — including exploring the possibility of a bus stop at Park View.

"There are communities around the country that are proud of their transit system. They love it," Graham said. "That's what we should strive for."

The county's Office of Transportation will begin a series of public meetings to address gaps in the system in October and November.

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