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Three Maryland counties awarded nearly $4.8 million to improve bus systems

Harford County received $3.4 million in federal grants to replace six diesel buses with compressed natural gas buses and retrofit its fueling and repair facilities.
Harford County received $3.4 million in federal grants to replace six diesel buses with compressed natural gas buses and retrofit its fueling and repair facilities. (Robin Sommer/MidAtlantic Photographic LLC)

Harford, Howard and Carroll counties were collectively awarded nearly $4.8 million in federal grants to improve their bus systems — the only three Maryland jurisdictions to receive that funding.

The three counties’ projects numbered among the 96 transit system improvement projects in 49 states and territories to which $464 million dollars were awarded, the Federal Transit Administration announced. The FTA received 282 applications, totaling approximately $1.8 billion in funding requests, the agency said.

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The lion’s share of the Maryland grants will go to Harford County, which was awarded approximately $3.4 million to replace six diesel buses with compressed natural gas buses and retrofit its fueling and repair facilities to accommodate the new technology, Harford County spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.

The county’s longer-term goal is to replace all of its 32 buses, many of which use diesel fuel, with natural gas-fueled shuttles, Mumby said. Natural gas is cheaper than diesel — the county expects to save $7,500 annually per bus in fuel costs, she said. Natural gas also burns at “close to zero” emissions, she said. The maintenance costs will be lower on the new buses as well.

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Those six will be the first compressed natural gas buses in Harford County’s fleet.

“It can take up to 30 months to get the buses,” Mumby said. “When we receive the funding, we have to go through a procurement process and then the buses are actually built for us.”

The federal grant requires the county to match 10% of the approximately $3.4 million. The Harford County transit system’s roughly $8 million budget is funded by 90% state and federal grants funds and 10% county dollars, Mumby said.

Howard County was awarded approximately approximately $1.2 million to improve its bus service’s reliability and connectivity, a statement from federal lawmakers said.

Funds will be used to replace three buses — likely of 2002 vintage — with new clean-diesel shuttles, said Bruce Gartner, administrator of the Howard County Office of Transportation. The new buses are similar to two others that the county purchased last year and will not require modifications to the county’s transportation infrastructure. The buses are likely to arrive in the winter of 2021 or early 2022.

Howard County will have to match the grant. The matching rate is customarily 20% of the award, with the county and state paying 10% each, Gartner explained. The county applies for the grant every year, and this year’s award was a boon, he said, but it still needs money to replace other aging buses in its fleet of 41. The county maintains a total fleet of about 60 vehicles.

“This is above and beyond what we would normally get from the state, which is funding for about two buses every year,” Gartner said. “We could use something similar for the next three to four years to really get ourselves to where transit agencies prefer to be with their average bus life.”

The new buses would also come equipped with an electronic announcement system. Drivers are supposed to call out the stops as they arrive, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the announcements sometime do not make it past the protective barriers put around drivers — a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Right now the drivers are supposed to be calling out the stops,” Gartner said. “It is kind of hit-and-miss as to if people hear that.”

Carroll County was awarded about $118,000 to purchase replacement buses for its aging fleet. The full amount will go to the Carroll Transit System.

According to a briefing submitted to the Board of Carroll County Commissioners on March 5, CTS was requesting three Ford buses to replace three older shuttles currently in its fleet of 40 total vehicles.

The county received the amount it requested from the grant, Transportation Grants Coordinator Stacey Nash said. It is also seeking a separate grant for five more vehicles, but Nash said it was unlikely to be awarded the grant.

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Carroll County will have to match funds for the three new buses with approximately $29,500 of its own dollars, according to the briefing given to the commissioners.

Carroll County Times reporter Mary Grace Keller contributed to this article.

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