Panel to urge county to hire contractor for public bus system


Columbia commuters ought to be able to catch a bus to commuter rail stations in Savage and Jessup in the next couple of years, but the driver who takes them there shouldn't be a county employee, the county's Public Transportation Board has concluded.

On July 13, the panel is scheduled to lay out its view of the future of public transportation in the county to Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

That future could come as quickly as next summer, when the Columbia Association plans to stop providing the county's only internal fixed-route bus system.

The association has been running ColumBus since 1967. It is the cheapest public transportation available, and is primarily around Columbia.

Now county planners and the board believe the rest of the county has grown enough -- with enough concentrated population and employment centers -- to support a larger county transit system.

The board plans to tell Mr. Ecker that the county shouldn't run its own bus system.

"I think that everybody pretty much feels that it could get out of hand, financially," said board member Daniel J. Maletic.

To prevent that, the board has concluded, the county should hire a contractor to supply the service. The contractor could hire drivers, dispatchers and mechanics to keep a fleet of county-owned buses running.

The county already owns the eight buses ColumBus operates and contributed $90,000 to the system's $1 million budget last year.

The rest of the ColumBus budget was made up of federal and state subsidies of $365,000 and $205,000, respectively, and $182,000 from the Columbia Association.

A study by Bethesda-based Ecosometrics Inc., released in March, calculated that a new county transit system could provide expanded service for the same price -- even without the association's contribution.

New federal funds could replace the Columbia Association's $182,000, the study said, and the service could reach beyond Columbia. The board will recommend new routes to the Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) service stations in Savage and Jessup, and to such population centers as Elkridge and Savage.

Savage already enjoys bus service to Laurel provided by the nonprofit Corridor Transportation Corp.'s Connect-A-Ride bus service.

Representatives of 6-year-old Connect-A-Ride already are lobbying county officials for a shot at operating a new county bus system.

The county transportation board is also set to recommend that county officials hold off on creating a county transit authority to control the new system.

The board said it would be better to wait until the system is running -- when the usefulness of an independent overseer would be easier to judge.

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