Worried about possible budget cuts, operators of Howard County's small transit system think they've found two ways of raising more money - sell more advertising and cut some fares.
Ray Ambrose, manager of Corridor Transportation, the firm that runs the Howard Transit system, presented the strategy last night to the county's Public Transportation Board. The five members present endorsed it, though an occasional doubt was expressed.
Ambrose said he has considered raising fares because of concern that the state's huge budget deficit could result in funding reductions that could hurt the 10-route, 25-bus system, but computer models and the experience of other systems have convinced him that raising fares lowers ridership - which also lowers revenue.
"A better way to get fares is by filling the empty seats that are out there," Ambrose told the board.
To do that, he said, he would leave the normal fare at $1 a rider, and 25 cents for people older than 60.
The Howard Transit system's bright green buses - on fixed routes and for handicapped riders - cost about $7.3 million a year to operate. Howard County pays about $4.3 million of that, according to Carl Balser, county transportation planner.
Fares and advertising the buses carry account for 3 percent of the total cost, Balser said.
Ambrose said he thinks ridership will rise 15 percent for the fiscal year starting July 1, if fares do not increase. He proposed trying to sell bus service to middle and high school students and to government workers in Howard by offering them a 25-cent fare, too, and selling monthly passes, all of which could bring in an additional $45,200.
About $82,500 more could come from selling more advertising on bus shelters, inside the buses and on printed schedules. He pointed out that by increasing county spending on the bus system from $1 million to more than $4 million since 1999, the county has seen ridership grow, from 200,000 riders in 1999 to nearly 600,000 this fiscal year.
"Our feeling is [that] there are segments of the market we can sell services to," Ambrose said.
County officials consider the bus system vital, partly to help entry-level workers get to jobs in the U.S. 1, Columbia, and Ellicott City areas, and for community college students who do not have cars.
In suburban Howard County, 4.3 percent of households have no privately owned vehicle, according to the 2000 census. That figure was 3.2 percent in 1990.
The growth in riders is the result of using the increased public funds to provide more and extended routes, more stops, longer hours, new buses and electronic scheduling signs that tell riders exactly when a bus will arrive at a stop.
Board member Theodore Buxton asked Ambrose how confident he is that his figures would bear out.
"It's a very reachable goal," Ambrose said, adding that the revenue estimates are conservative.
Balser said the system is considering installing shelters at some county schools, partly as a way of advertising transit services, especially for getting home after extracurricular activities.
"If we fill those seats, it's success breeding more success," he said, because people will see more people on the buses, encouraging them to try it.
"I'm somewhat skeptical," Buxton said. "It's something like, 'We'll cut your taxes and we won't have a deficit,' " he said to chuckles from others.
Balser said the intention is to seek public reactions for a month, and then perhaps try Ambrose's ideas for 18 months and see if they work.
Ambrose said the last thing he wants to see are declines in ridership after all the money and effort the county, state and the company have expended to make the system grow. He said his models show that ridership will drop about 4 percent for each 10 percent that fares increase. Despite that, he said, transit systems are considering increases in Annapolis, Montgomery County and on the Mass Transit Administration system that serves Baltimore.
As for state budget cuts, "We just haven't heard," he said.