Because of an unusual government budget error stretching over two years, Howard County's fast-growing local transit system will have to cut service - forcing passengers to wait longer for a ride.
Starting March 14, waiting time between buses will increase from 45 minutes to 60 minutes, and lightly used late-night and midday routes will be eliminated, according to county transportation planner Carl Balser. Also, the brown route, which connects Savage, Kings Contrivance, Oakland Mills and Owen Brown to Town Center, will be combined with the orange route, which covers Hickory Ridge and other parts of west Columbia.
In September, the system announced later evening hours on five bus routes; in March, it had lowered some fares to build ridership. Earlier, the system had reduced wait times between buses from 60 minutes to 45 minutes, and installed electronic signs to tell riders the expected wait time.
All of the improvements contributed to nearly tripling ridership over the past five years, helping area businesses to get employees without cars to work and providing rides for students, senior citizens and others without private transportation.
Transit advocates were upset about the cuts, which will be presented to the county transportation board at 7 tonight in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. A 30-day public comment period will extend to the Feb. 24 board meeting, according to county officials.
"It's terribly disappointing," said Judy Pittman, vice chairwoman of Transportation Advocates, a private group trying to promote mass transit in a county with increasingly congested roads.
"In the last couple of years, we've made such strides. It's just a shame we have to back up," she said, noting that County Executive James N. Robey has been a strong supporter of better transit services.
According to Raquel Sanudo, chief county administrative officer, the county budgeted $6.3 million in local funds to match federal and state grants for the transit system over the past two fiscal years but never deposited the money.
"It clearly was a systems breakdown," Sanudo said, explaining that several departments assumed the money was there because it was budgeted.
Bills were paid from general operating cash without anyone realizing the error - until a round of budget cuts this year prompted a closer examination.
"Of course, it's embarrassing. We wish it didn't happen," Sanudo said, adding that Robey has ordered an audit of all grants to the county.
Sanudo said higher-than-expected revenue from real estate sales are expected to replenish the transit money.
Robey plans to ask the County Council to transfer $3.3 million from a contingency reserve to cover the error in this year's budget, and up to $800,000 more is being cut from this year's transit budget to help close the gap, officials said. Para-transit services for disabled people will not be affected.
Bus ridership has nearly tripled in the past five years, from 184,300 in fiscal 2000 to 559,000 during the last fiscal year, according to Ray Ambrose, manager of Corridor Transportation, the firm that operates the system in Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
"We're projecting a loss of about 150,000 riders" from the 700,000 riders the county had projected for this budget year because of the loss of county funds, Ambrose said. No layoffs are planned, but a job freeze is in effect, he said. Howard Transit's budget is $4.5 million a year, of which about 60 percent is county funds.
Carol Filipzak, a transportation board member, said the cutbacks in service could damage efforts to make the bus system better and more popular.
"We've demonstrated that suburbanites are willing to use transit, but if they cut it and increase the wait time, it makes it less convenient," Filipzak said. "Howard Transit has been trying to establish the reliability of its routes. To now decrease service questions the reliability of the whole system."
Several County Council members said they were told about the problem last week. Although they regret the service cuts, they said they are unavoidable.
Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said perhaps the grant audits should be performed by an outside firm since government agencies missed the error for so long.
"It showed up in our budget for two years. Apparently, the money never got allocated," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon.
"When the budget is so tight, you can only do what you can do," said council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.