As Howard County overhauls its transportation system, some advocates for the elderly, disabled and impoverished worry about the future of the car-and-van system that offers the only means of transit for many such residents.
The county's private, nonprofit Urban Rural Transportation Alliance (URTA) has provided the specialized, reservation-style "para-transit" service for two decades. But next spring, the group may have competition when the county puts the service out for competitive bid for the first time.
"URTA does a good job," said Elaine Flemion, director of Elkridge Senior Center. "Anytime there may be a change like this, there is always a concern that it may not be for the benefit of the passengers."
The county is restructuring its overall mass transit system -- a big piece of which is para-transit -- in a process set to be completed in July 1997, said Carl Balser, transportation planning chief for the county Department of Planning and Zoning.
The restructuring is part of an effort to expand the system to serve more residents and more sites, he said.
"We're trying to use the funds we have more efficiently and be smarter about how we spend our transit dollars," he said.
The first phase was the establishment in July of a new public fixed-route bus system, the Howard Area Transit System.
That system replaced ColumBUS, the 20-year-old bus system that had a limited, four-route network in Columbia. The new system, now managed by Charter Ways Transit Management Inc., which won a competitive bid, is developing more extensive routes.
County officials also are considering ways to establish rural routes and to develop a fixed-route bus system that complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act. That federal law requires increased access for the disabled to public facilities and transportation.
In the course of restructuring the mass transit system, county officials also are looking for more cost-effective ways of providing specialized service for elderly, disabled and low-income residents -- and that could mean major changes for URTA.
URTA's budget totals about $1 million, of which nearly $700,000 is provided by the county. The state provides $83,500, while private funds and passenger fees make up the rest, county and URTA officials said.
The service's fleet of 26 station wagons and vans provides about 100,000 rides a year for $1 a ride, said Janet L. McGlynn, URTA executive director.
Instead of having a fixed route, URTA uses a reservation system where passengers must call three or more business days in advance for a ride. About three-quarters of the service's passengers have standing reservations for such trips as regular visits to a doctor.
But while the county has been satisfied with URTA's performance, state regulations require the service to be put out for competitive bid -- something county officials only discovered when they began revamping the county's entire mass transit system.
According to those regulations, any project that receives state grants for more than $10,000 must be competitively bid, Balser said.
"I'm not sure we ever realized it was supposed to be competitively bid," Balser said, adding that the process should lead to a less expensive service.
The county's fixed-route system -- which has a fiscal year budget of $846,000 -- costs about $7 a trip, while the para-transit service costs $11, Balser said. One reason for the higher costs is that the specialized service must accommodate many passengers with physical or emotional problems, county and URTA officials said.
Burden on provider
Competitive bidding "puts the burden on the provider to show us how efficiently and cost-effectively they can provide the service," Balser said.
McGlynn, URTA executive director, said the group will submit a bid.
"The passenger must stay important to this formula and not just the tax dollar," she said. "We expect to be a strong bidder considering how much experience we have in doing the job."
County officials said URTA is the standard by which other bidders will be judged.
"The bidding process will not include just price, but the quality of service," said Dan Maletic, chairman of the county's Public Transportation Board. "We don't want someone to come in, underbid URTA, and the service goes down."
Focus on service
Duane St. Clair, assistant administrator for the Office of Aging, said he hopes a change in providers doesn't have any negative consequences.
"We are very dependent on the service, but there's not a great concern on who the provider will be as long as we get the same level of service," he said.
Pub Date: 8/15/96