The regional bus system that serves Howard County is approaching an intersection where the traffic signal is flashing amber – it's time to slow down and make some educated plans about moving forward.
Over the years, Howard's system has evolved from a patchwork of smaller transit systems and services into a regional consortium that is trying to map a clearer future at a time when every dollar is precious.
As one transportation planner noted in last week's cover story, the system hasn't kept pace with the county's growth as it "has evolved from a rural county with a couple of dense pockets to very dense pockets" of people.
Planners are confronted with older buses that are wearing out, nearing the end of their life span, requiring expensive replacements. They're trying to look at flexible routes and schedules that make the most sense for the largest group of riders so waits between buses are measured in minutes rather than an hour of more. And they're attempting to keep costs in check.
Setting fares is always a delicate balancing act. If they are too high, transportation can become unaffordable for people who need it most. Lower fares require greater subsidies from taxpayers and can ignite political battles over paying for transit, roads and bridges that often lead nowhere.
A series of upcoming public meetings on the system's future has to examine a few crucial issues, starting with the cost and convenience of service. Studies have shown that the right mix of price, frequency of service, safety and even cleanliness have a marked influence on ridership.
Demographic changes are becoming a factor in a number of metropolitan areas, with fewer millennials owning cars, instead relying on public systems and on-demand ride sharing services.
Regional commuting patterns have to be taken into account so local buses will continue to link Howard's neighborhoods with larger population centers and systems, including the commuter rail service MARC, light rail and buses in the Baltimore region and the Washington area's Metrorail and Metrobus lines.
The county's bus network is a bargain, at $2 for a one-ride token, even less for a 10-ride, senior, student or monthly pass. As it improves and expands, which it must, the changes have to be measured and capable of keeping up with a rising demand.