Faced with a $253,000 shortfall, Columbia's bus system wants to increase fares, eliminate some routes and streamline others to reduce travel times.

The proposal, which the Columbia Association presented to a standing-room-only crowd at the Hawthorne neighborhood center Feb. 7, would eliminate service to 5 percent of ColumBus riders, but would provide "faster, more efficient service" to the other 95 percent,supporters say.

The system would be scaled down to three routes serving east and west Columbia every 45 minutes and one route serving Ellicott City every 90 minutes. The four buses would operate from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

All village centers would be served, as would Howard County General Hospital, the Columbia Freestate Health System, Howard Community College, The Mall in Columbia, Dobbin Center, and the county office complex in Ellicott City.

In addition, buses also would stop at three senior citizen housing complexes and the Florence Bain senior citizens' center.

Faresfor children, senior citizens and disabled persons would increase 15cents per ride to 75 cents during peak hours and 60 cents during non-peak hours. Adult fares would increase 25 cents to $1.00.

Predictably, ColumBus riders served by the new routes praised the plan at Thursday night's hearing, while those losing service -- people who livein low-density areas -- opposed it.

Speakers -- some elderly or disabled -- were polite and soft-spoken as they told the association'sboard of directors how the proposed changes would affect their lives.

Only once did they show strong emotion. They burst into applauseas one rider affectionately mentioned every ColumBus driver by name,describing the extra lengths to which they go to serve passengers, especially the disabled.

"It is unfortunate that 5 percent of our riders will no longer be able to make use of the service," said Jacqueline Dewey, the association's vice president in charge of community services, "but given the loss of income ($253,000 in state and federalmoney), we had to strike a balance between what we could afford and improve."

Like Dewey, county transportation coordinator Louis H. Pinkney expressed concern about riders who would be excluded under theplan, saying "we still need to look closely at the people who have to walk too far" to be serviced by the new routes.

Still, "a transportation system can't be all things to all people," Pinkney said. "When you have limited resources to make improvements, you have to make them for the greatest number of people."

Despite the curtailing ofsome routes, Pinkney called the proposal "a step forward in the progress and maturation of ColumBus." He and Dewey agreed that the reduction in time between trips would be "a big improvement." In the past, riders have had to sometimes wait as long as two hours.

Pinkney also praised the plan for shortening the trips for riders, allowing them to go directly to medical facilities and places like Dobbin Center without stopping by the mall first. Overall, "the plan serves the high-density area of the county pretty well," Pinkney said.

Until 1989, the Columbia Association, an organization that owns and operates recreational facilities in Columbia, was solely responsible for bus service. Since then, the association has continued to operate the system as a subcontractor for the county government.

Under the proposalaired Thursday night, ColumBus could anticipate receiving $760,000 for the coming fiscal year -- $122,000 from fares, $90,000 from the county, and $548,000 in state and federal aid.

With expenses expected to amount to $878,000, the Columbia Association would have to makeup the $118,000 difference.

After the association's board of directors decides later this month how much to budget for ColumBus, the county's transportation board will conduct public hearings in March onthe proposed new routes and fare increases.

If the transportationboard accepts the plan, it will be sent to the state's public service commission for approval, which would be May 1 at the earliest. Onceapproved, ColumBus would begin the new routes and fares immediately,Dewey said.

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