Cecil County commuters, who already face the loss of a timely train service to Baltimore and Washington, now stand to lose public bus transportation from Elkton to the big employment centers in Newark, Del.
Route 65, which features 20 trips a day on 16-passenger minibuses operated by the Delaware Department of Transportation, could end this summer, according to Delaware and Maryland transportation officials.
"As of now it is not being renewed for the fiscal year 2005, which starts July 1st of this year," said Walter Hayes, a spokesman for the Maryland Transit Administration.
Maryland contributes $75,000 a year to the bus route's $306,000 cost. Delaware's share is $231,000. Maryland has moved to eliminate its financial support. "It's mainly a budget decision," Hayes said.
He said riders - who pay $1.15 for a single trip and $2.40 for a daily pass - contribute 3 percent of the cost of the service, and the MTA wants it to be 7 percent. He also said Route 65 carries only 0.12 passengers per mile. The minimal acceptable rate is 0.15 passengers per mile.
Cathy Dennis, planning manager for Delaware Transit Corp., the state agency that handles public bus and train service, said Delaware transit officials will make a decision on the future of Route 65 in coming months.
"Maryland wants to eliminate its portion of the service," said Nelson K. Bolender, president of the Cecil County Board of Commissioners. "Maryland says that nobody rides the bus."
"That would be a major disservice," said Anthony DiGiacomo, principal planner in the Cecil County Office of Planning and Zoning. "I personally think it's a good deal for the state. Delaware flips most of the bill and has all the headaches of dealing with the contractor that supplies the service."
"It's a good tool to attract development," said DiGiacomo, who was involved in starting the service, which began in December 2000. "A company can locate in Elkton," he said, "knowing that they can draw from the big employee base surrounding Newark. It cuts down on highway congestion and helps improve air quality by taking cars off the road."
DiGiacomo said the 2000 census reported that 14,000 people commute from Cecil County to jobs in New Castle County, Del., each day. Another 3,000 come the other way - to jobs in Cecil County from homes in New Castle County.
Dennis acknowledges that ridership is low, but said it has been growing. Route 65 carries about 1,600 riders a month. She said that, although this is small, it's up from about 100 when the service began.
Reports of the number of riders vary.
Hayes, the MTA spokesman, put the figure at 52 a day.
The Cecil County Office of Planning and Zoning put ridership at about 2,000 a month.
The number of passengers varies from day to day and hour to hour, said Charlene Reed, a driver who makes the loop between the two towns in about an hour.
This was evident Thursday morning. Reed left the Cecil County Department of Aging at 7:51 a.m. and picked up only one passenger, Cathy Scarcelli, who got on in Newark.
But on an earlier run, which left the department at 7:02 a.m., Reed said the minibus was nearly full.
Reed blames the small number of riders on a lack of promotion. "People don't know about it," she said as she turned off North Street onto Route 279 and headed toward Delaware. "If they did, we would have more riders.
"They should advertise this service more," she said. "They should put signs in the Elkton Mall, the High's stores, Wal-Mart and the grocery stores. They need to tell people about this service."
Reed said there is also a need for additional stops. "People have to walk too far to get to a bus stop or they have to walk too far to their jobs once they get off the bus."
Asked whether she ever drives the loop without picking up a passenger, Reed responded: "Unfortunately, yes."
Despite its limited use, Dennis, of the Delaware Transit Corp., offered hope that their service might continue. "The possibility of it being eliminated is still there," she said. "But there is also a possibility that it will be continued. If it is continued, it will be scaled down."
In addition to benefits to air quality and traffic congestion, Dennis said there is a social-service aspect of the bus service. She said Cecil County judges put a flier about the bus service in court papers that go to persons who fail to make child support payments and blame it on their inability to find a job in the county or a lack of transportation. "The judges tell them: 'That's no excuse. There's bus service to Newark.'"
And opposition to Maryland's plan to cut its funding is mounting.
In a letter to Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, the five Cecil County commissioners wrote that Route 65 provides county residents with better access to employment in Delaware. They said it helps Elkton employers, including Union Hospital of Cecil County, by providing better access to Delaware labor.
The commissioners said the bus service helped the county implement its comprehensive growth plan by making it easier to steer new development to Elkton and other towns.
James G. Crouse, executive director of Elkton Alliance Inc., a private sector economic development agency, called the state's contribution to the service "peanuts" and said its elimination is another example of rural Maryland being overlooked when it comes to public transportation.
In a letter to Flanagan, Elkton Mayor Joseph L. Fisona said he did not think the level of funding necessary to continue the bus line would adversely affect Maryland's bigger fiscal picture.
Kenneth S. Lewis, president and chief executive officer of Union Hospital, wrote Flanagan to say that a serious shortage of health care workers is forcing the hospital to depend on Delaware residents "to perform a number of critical and non-critical services."
"Bus 65 provides an important link to our hospital and community for our Delaware employees," he said.
The possible elimination of Route 65 is just the latest setback for Cecil residents seeking public transportation. The Maryland Transit Administration also is moving to eliminate MARC train No. 517, which leaves Perryville at 8 a.m. daily.
The train also stops at Aberdeen, Edgewood and Martin State Airport and picks up about 60 passengers before arriving in Baltimore an hour later.
From Baltimore it moves on to Washington.
The MTA is planning to eliminate Train 517 by the end of the month. State officials say the train can better serve the growing number of commuters traveling from Baltimore to Washington.
Del. David D. Rudolph, a Cecil County Democrat, has been meeting with MTA officials in hopes of encouraging them to reverse the decision.
He said on Friday that one possibility being considered is to have an Amtrak train fill the service with stops at Perryville, Aberdeen, Edgewood and Middle River.
More than 200 riders from northeastern Maryland and Delaware have signed a petition to keep the train running.
Rudolph said he is also negotiating with state transportation officials to retain Route 65, and that this could involve Cecil County contributing a portion of the operating cost.