Residents got their first look at proposed changes to the region's transit system Monday at a public meeting for the Central Maryland Transit Development Plan.
The meeting was the first of four the Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland and Maryland Transit Administration are hosting to gather public input on a plan that is meant to improve service to riders in Howard and Anne Arundel counties and parts of Prince George's County. The plan offers solutions to improve transit options for RTA riders, including increased service and more-direct bus routes.
Monday's meeting kicked off the second set of public input meetings officials have held on transit issues in the region. Meetings were also held in 2016 to learn about the most pressing public transit issues facing the region, and RTA riders also completed surveys to identify the top changes patrons wanted to see in the system, including increased weekend service and more punctual and frequent buses.
The development plan will be executed in two phases, Howard County Office of Transportation Administrator Clive Graham said. Top features of the first phase of the plan, to be implemented over the next three to five years, include redrawing routes to cut down the time it takes to reach major county locations, such as Howard Community College and Howard County General Hospital, and significantly increasing weekend service.
To create county routes that are more direct, Graham said the plan is to shorten the existing nine routes and break them up into 14 routes. This would significantly cut down on the time it takes it to complete each route, Graham said. For example, the 406 route, which services The Mall in Columbia, would be cut down from a 53-minute to a 25-minute route.
"Some routes haven't been changed in over 20 years," Graham said. "We service everywhere, but we service poorly and infrequently."
Weekend service would be increased during the first phase of the plan. Saturday service would begin two hours earlier at 6 a.m. and run an hour later, until 11 p.m.; and Sunday service would run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Buses would also run twice as frequently on a one-hour basis instead of two hours.
Graham said the first phase of the plan requires that the county add three more buses to its fleet to service the additional number and frequency of routes. The county aims to put more routes on a half-hour headway schedule, meaning that a bus arrives every 30 minutes. Currently only two routes include this service, and Graham said the hope is to double that number.
The problem, Graham said, lies in the fact that over half the county's approximately 50-bus fleet has outlived its "useful life," and needs to be replaced. The County council approved the purchase of seven new buses, to be delivered in December, and Graham said he hopes to order eight more in September.
The buses take approximately a year to be delivered once they are ordered, and cost roughly $360,000 each. Because of the extensive delivery time and cost of new buses, Graham said replacing all of the outdated buses would take several years.
"You can't go to Walmart and buy a bus," he said.
The plan does not including changing bus fares, according to Graham. A one-way fare costs $2.
Graham said Howard County's buses need to service those who most need them — riders coming to and from work. Eighty-five percent of riders do not own their own car, and almost half of them make $20,000 or less annually, according to a 2017 transit report.
The second phase of the development plan includes adding routes in four key areas in Howard: Elkridge, River Hill, Maple Lawn and Turf Valley. Graham said the second phase is expected to be implemented over the next 15 to 20 years, as funding becomes available.
Graham said despite a light turnout at Monday's meeting, attendees were interested in the plan, particularly in the future of the county's bus fleet and proposed service changes. He said some attendees didn't believe the plan went far enough in taking a "visionary" approach.
The next public meeting is Sept. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the county's nonprofit center, in Columbia.