Proposals to improve mass transit reviewed; Better service for older residents is among priorities


Carroll County must develop public transportation between its major population centers and connections with other metropolitan areas if it is to avoid gridlock on its major roads, according to a report by the Mass Transit Administration.

But getting residents who have consistently opposed public transportation to accept the plan could prove a major marketing challenge for MTA. Opponents have said they fear bus lines will bring crime into the county.

"We must preserve, improve and expand on the existing system," said Harvey S. Zelefsky, MTA planning manager. "But we must do a good marketing job and also make sure people are aware of transit."

MTA administrators are conducting workshops in Baltimore and every county before finalizing the Maryland Comprehensive Transit Plan next year. The organization wants to double daily ridership by 2020 on its buses and trains from 570,000, a goal Zelefsky called "aggressive, but achievable."

Daily use is one of the highest in the country, but nearly all the riders -- 550,000 of them -- are in Baltimore and Washington.

Plans call for tripling ridership in the rural areas, specifically Western and Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore. The proposed improvements would take MTA's operating budget from $800 million to $1.1 billion.

For Carroll County, MTA would like to provide links to the Baltimore area and Frederick, and improve transportation services such as Carroll Transit with increased hours and routes. Carroll Transit, a private, nonprofit transportation service based in Westminster, serves primarily elderly and disabled residents.

Planners also envision better passenger amenities, such as convenient and comfortable stations with computerized access to schedules.

"Surveys have shown ground support for mass transit as an important public service," said Lib Fetting, a senior planner with a consulting firm working on the plan with MTA. "But we recognize the need for improvements." Those surveys, conducted since 1997, have frequently been random telephone opinion polls.

The first report previews a transit master plan that will cover needs through 2020; it will take a statewide approach, and include recommendations for specific local projects and a statewide perspective. "We did not focus on what transportation will be in 20 years, but what will be the mobility challenges in 2020," said Zelefsky.

Those challenges include a projected 1 million increase in the state's population, with an 81 percent increase in those age 60 and older. Maryland will have an additional 500,000 households and 700,000 more jobs, and the time motorists spend on its roads will rise 65 percent.

"Here in Carroll, our primary concern is transportation needs of older adults," said Jan Flora, chief of the county Bureau on Aging. "Seniors in 2020 will prefer public transportation, but we have to consider affordability. It can be there, but if they can't afford it, a bus won't be helpful."

Carroll Transit runs a shuttle from major housing developments in Westminster to shopping areas four times a day, which costs $2 roundtrip. Westminster Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan said, "I hear from seniors frequently who don't know when buses run and where they stop. In your 20-year program, you must consider the senior population."

Carroll Transit also arranges curb-to-curb service for passengers who give the company at least 24 hours' notice. It has more calls for that service than any other area in the state does, Yowan said.

Residents have repeatedly opposed efforts to extend bus and rail lines from Baltimore, but Yowan said limiting times and routes could make mass transit more palatable. More than half of Carroll's work force leaves daily for jobs in other cities and counties. A 65 percent increase in traffic could mean gridlock, particularly Routes 140, 26 and 30

"We have to look at employment hubs around the Beltway," said Yowan, who suggested express buses to those hubs.

Steven Horn, county director of planning, said Carroll's work force does not fit into traditional transit planning models.

"Suburban commutes are increasing because of the decentralization of the city of Baltimore," Horn said. "We have to work on ways to tackle the transit issue."

He, too, said it is a problem of perception, which good marketing could improve.

A few years ago, the county conducted a license plate survey of cars parked at the Owings Mills metro station, and found nearly 60 percent of them were owned by Carroll residents.

"Yet these people do not support a bus line to the station," said Horn. "It is amazing."

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