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County proposes new buses to replace old RTA fleet

The addition of seven new buses could bring temporary relief to an aging regional transit system that serves Howard County, northern Prince George's County, Anne Arundel County and the city of Laurel as county officials draft a plan to overhaul the system.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman is seeking the Howard County Council's approval to enter into a 10-year lease-to-purchase contract for at least $2.5 million. The buses would primarily serve Howard County, which plans to front all of the costs.

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But the request is a short-term fix. The sight of faded forest green buses sputtering along local roads is no anomaly. The system needs to replace almost half of the 42 buses on its fixed routes.

Buses have long surpassed mileage thresholds they were originally designed for and routinely break down, driving up maintenance costs, according to county officials.

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The Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland, a transit authority that operates the system, does not have enough spare vehicles to swap out broken-down vehicles. In some cases, vehicles supplies are so short the agency swaps out its newer paratransit buses for fixed-route buses.

"We don't put unsafe buses out. They breakdown because they're old," said Clive Graham, who heads the county's Office of Transportation. "It's like driving an old vehicle. It's not as if it's unsafe to drive, but there's a risk of breaking down. Right now, we have no alternative until we get new buses."

Kittleman is proposing to purchase seven EZ Rider buses by ElDorado, a company based in Riverside, Calif., through a cooperative purchasing program. The county can enter the program through an agreement under the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a nonprofit organization of regional county executives Kittleman began chairing last month.

If approved by the County Council in March, the buses, which seat up to 33 passengers, could hit the streets by the end of 2017. Kittleman needs the Council's approval because the agreement covers appropriations over a decade.

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Searching for funding in the budget for transportation priorities is a major challenge, according to county officials.

The fleet received six medium-duty buses in 2013, according to Kathleen Donodeo, a transportation planner for the county's Office of Transportation.

County officials said they have not received funding for the new buses from other counties.

For now, the county is currently considering replacing old buses from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

A draft county budget for next year includes around $4 million for another 10 buses to replace aging buses. Around $79,000 will come from Anne Arundel County, $45,000 from Prince George's County and $278,000 from Howard County in the next fiscal year.

This spring, the county's transportation office plans to identify gaps and underserved areas in the transit system as part of a five-year plan required by the state. The plan, last completed in 2009, is two years overdue because of limited state funding to finance the study.

Graham hopes to shift the system from "one of last resort to one of choice."

The transit system was built on the skeleton of ColumBus, a collection of minibuses from the 1960s, and has since evolved into the fifth-largest transit program in Maryland. But the system has not kept up to pace with growth. Several routes do not cover new dense developments in Fulton and Hanover and along Route 1 and Route 40.

"We're talking about better buses, smarter routing and, hopefully, going from one-hour headways to half-hour headways," Graham said.

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