County transit lagging behind


Fifteen years ago, neither Anne Arundel nor Harford County government offered its residents much - if any - public bus transportation.

Since then, the counties have gone very different routes.

Harford's government gobbled up state and federal grants, constructing a 31-bus public transportation system that shuttles residents mostly between cities on its U.S. 40 corridor. Last year, it provided 179,034 rides. It plans to expand.

Anne Arundel - for all its riches, including a median family income of nearly $62,000 and a "rainy day" budget fund of nearly $30 million - stands with Baltimore County as two of the state's eight most populous jurisdictions that don't offer public bus transportation.

Anne Arundel has yet to develop the transportation plan required to receive significant state funding for a bus system. The initial plan should be completed by this summer, but it will recommend that the county continue its reliance on other groups to provide a patchwork public bus system.

The county is not going to get into the business of providing public transportation, County Executive Janet S. Owens said in a recent interview.

"I can't even imagine it right now given the budget," she said. "I don't see any blue skies. The idea is so remote."

She added, "A future exec may see it differently."

Kate Rollason, executive director of the Arc of Anne Arundel County, sees it differently. She views the transportation system from two perspectives.

As the head of a nonprofit organization that assists clients with mental disabilities, she sees clients struggle to get around even though social services agencies offer some transportation, she said.

The county "really needs to get a comprehensive system in place," Rollason said. "It ends up making people who should be at work not able to get jobs."

As someone who suffers from a medical condition that prevents her from driving, Rollason has also experienced the transportation hardship firsthand. She lives in Annapolis.

"I can get just about anywhere in the city of Annapolis. If you need to get anywhere else, you're stuck," she said. "As the county grows, the need for transportation is going to get more and more."

'A human service'

For most of the past 15 years, transit money was available for the taking - there weren't state and federal budget problems and the last governor, Parris N. Glendening, was a big advocate of public transportation.

"If we applied, we generally got it," said Carol Lienhard, the director of Harford's Office on Aging and Transportation.

Town-to-town service in Harford began in 1989. It has steadily grown so that Havre de Grace, Aberdeen, Bel Air and Edgewood are linked by bus routes. Aberdeen, Bel Air and Edgewood also have local routes within them.

Harford used government and state funds that paid for 90 percent of the cost of buses and 75 percent to 100 percent of operating costs.

"Harford has just been very aggressive in applying for funds," said Nancy Noonan, the Maryland Transit Administration's manager of statewide planning.

It costs $1 to ride the bus; 50 cents for Medicare cardholders and those age 65 and older.

But Harford's system is not self-supporting, meaning that the rider fees do not offset county's spending. The county spent about $150,000 this year to run its public bus routes, Lienhard said.

"You wouldn't ask your fire department to be self-supporting," Lienhard said. "You wouldn't ask your police department to be self-supporting. This is a human service."

Too late

Because Anne Arundel County waited, the opportunity to receive government funding to build up a transit system has passed, transportation officials said.

"We're out of federal money," Noonan said.

Both the price tag and the existence of other bus services have kept Anne Arundel from starting a public bus service, officials said. For 25 years, Annapolis has provided limited bus service into the county, and for about 14 years Corridor Transportation Corp. has run routes into the northwest corner of Anne Arundel.

"Why duplicate?" Owens said.

An affiliate of the Baltimore-Washington Chamber of Commerce, Corridor receives funding - about $420,000 a year - from Anne Arundel County, its director said. It offers service between northwest Anne Arundel and Howard, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Three years ago, it expanded its Anne Arundel service. It offers five routes that have stops including the Cromwell light rail station in Glen Burnie, Maryland City, Odenton and the National Security Agency.

It connects to the Annapolis bus system at Arundel Mills.

Annapolis recently began running its sixth route into the county, mostly to nearby communities. The new route links Edgewater, Annapolis and Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold. The other routes have stops at the Annapolis Mall, Arundel Mills and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The county provides the city with $150,000, about 10 percent of the city's transportation budget. It also contributes state funding, city officials said.

The county would like to see the Corridor and Annapolis systems expanded, Owens said. Such plans will likely be contained in the future report.

"It would be nice if the county could coordinate what they have right now into a system," said Jim Glover, president of the Transportation Association of Maryland.

It's not ideal to have two uncoordinated systems, Owens and planning administrator George G. Cardwell say, but it's the best way to help people immediately without building up a fleet of buses.

"If the county operated a service on its own," Cardwell said, "there might be some more overall coordination."

The three current systems - the MTA also runs eight routes in Arundel, mostly to Baltimore and the Washington area - do not attempt to provide a countywide service.

The Corridor system focuses on the western county and is limited to north Anne Arundel, said its administrator, Ray Ambrose.

The Annapolis system aims to get Annapolis residents where they want to go, city officials said. For example, the Arundel Mills/BWI route makes few stops along the way.

Said Danielle Matland, the director of the city's Department of Transportation: "Our primary interest is mobility for Annapolitans and helping economic development for Annapolis."

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