Regional transit authority moves toward July 1 start date

For the moment, not much will change but the names.

But transportation planners in three jurisdictions hope the agreement creating the Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland will win final approval this month and potentially pave the way for more and better bus services in Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

"Essentially, a way to look at it is, on June 30 drivers will pull out of the garages with First Transit badges on their shoulders, and on July 1 drivers will pull out with RTA badges," said John W. Powell Jr., Howard County transportation administrator.

"It's going to be that seamless."

On Monday, transportation officials from Anne Arundel County, Annapolis and Howard County released a draft agreement to create the authority. The transportation consortium would streamline funding, cut out "unnecessary" private service providers, and better compete for federal and state funding. Powell said he expects the agreement to be signed within the next two weeks.

Anne Arundel County is currently reviewing the agreement, in part to ensure it is an equal partner. The goal is to give the county more direct control over transit funds, positioning the county for more public transportation in the long run.

"The idea is to get service at reduced cost," said George Cardwell, Anne Arundel County transportation planning administrator. "This appears to be a way we can do that."

Annapolis would act as the southern hub of the network, and the authority would operate bus services now run by city government.

Anne Arundel County has agreed to pay $2 million of a $9 million bus facility in Annapolis Junction by 2015. About 100 transit vehicles from the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging and Disabilities, Howard Transit and Connect-A-Ride for Anne Arundel County will park at the approximately 6-acre facility on Corridor Road.

Howard County will act as a funnel for funds from the three jurisdictions, paying First Transit Inc. to manage all transit services.

"A way to think of it is us as a funnel," Powell said.

Connect-A-Ride service in and around Glen Burnie, Hanover and Odenton currently is run by Central Maryland Regional Transit. It contracts with First Transit to operate the buses, an agreement that ends on June 30.

"Right now, we have a CEO of CMRT whose job it is to oversee the general manager of First Transit, when the general manager of First Transit can simply do the job," Powell said.

Under the agreement, jurisdictions are expected to keep funding level, Powell said. That would mean over $11 million from Howard County and approximately $1 million from Anne Arundel.

"We're looking at adding services in Howard County, but obviously can't speak for other jurisdictions," Powell said.

Prince George's County and the City of Laurel expressed interest in the plan at first, but have not indicated they will sign on.

"We truly expect and hope those jurisdictions will become part of the RTA at some point," Powell said.

Cardwell said better inter-county travel is a goal for Anne Arundel, which brings in over 80,000 commuters from other counties to big employers like Arundel Mills, BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and Fort George G. Meade.

"We'd be able to drop artificial barriers that exist," Cardwell said. "One jurisdiction doesn't want to pay for transit in another jurisdiction, especially if (it has) limited funds to begin with."