Howard County must act soon to improve its public transit options, the county's new transportation chief says, arguing that the growing population will be choked with traffic in coming years if people are not provided with better options.

John Powell Jr., who took over Howard's transportation department in March, presented his first budget to the County Council last week. In defending the $7.4 million spending plan, Powell discussed the broad transportation issues for the department, created last year.

"It's going to get worse. it's not going to get better," Powell said, adding that increases in population will only add to traffic congestion. "We can't build ourselves out of it."

Powell said he hopes to develop less-expensive transportation for seniors. He said that for trips up to 14 miles, its cheapest to pay for people to use cabs, but the costs become unreasonable at longer distances.

He said ultimately, the department must provide detailed transportation plans in the future to get county residents to adjust their habits and encourage the use of mass transportation.

Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, asked about the "constant tension" between the need for affordable, mass transportation and the relatively low number of riders.

"How do you envision merging those two?" Ball asked.

Powell responded that in the long term, it's a matter of "build it, they will come."

"People understand we need to get to a different place," he said, but residents also need specific examples to show how transit would benefit them.

"It's not just sitting back, saying we need to do something differently. You have to have something that goes with it," he said.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said improved transportation will also bring economic development.

"You have a very important job," she added.

Last year, the council approved the creation of the new department, which oversees funding for Howard Transit, paratransit service, a reverse commute program and a carpooling service.

A citizens commission had recommended creating the new, higher-profile office to help deal with growing transportation congestion, especially with large increases in federal employment around Fort Meade and the National Security Agency.

Ball said after the meeting that Powell provides an "opportunity to finally have a leader in place to ensure we are more efficient and effective."