Howard residents fight to save bus service


If Maryland transportation officials reduce commuter bus service from Columbia to Baltimore, Hal Sommers of Kings Contrivance said he will have to drive farther to board the bus, only to have his ride end before he reaches his destination -- the state government-office complex on West Preston Street.

Mona Tsoukleris of Clarksville is legally blind from retinitis pigmentosa and can't drive, so her husband takes her to catch a commuter bus at the Broken Land Parkway park-and-ride lot where Sommers also boards. With the proposed state cuts, both riders will have to go farther -- to the Snowden River lot at Route 175 -- so they can get to their downtown jobs.

"I'm trying to depend on you to maintain my independence," said Tsoukleris, who teaches budding pharmacists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

About 50 bus riders and their advocates vented their complaints and arguments Monday night at Kahler Hall in Columbia against Maryland Transit Administration plans to save nearly $500,000 by eliminating two commuter bus routes to Howard County and trimming service on a third that serves the U.S. 1 corridor. A second hearing was held yesterday at the Jessup Holiday Inn.

State officials say half-empty buses are inefficient, and they must cut service to outlying counties by October to meet budget constraints, but some speakers said the state's figures are skewed because buses often are off schedule or don't appear at all.

Glenn Hoge, a state transit planner serving as hearing officer Monday night, told the audience that commuter service to Baltimore would use the Snowden River lot instead of extending to Broken Land Parkway for one simple reason -- ridership.

In April, he said, 13 people got on the No. 311 bus to Baltimore at Broken Land Parkway, while 112 got the No. 310 at Snowden River. With the Ehrlich administration trying to reduce commuter bus costs from Harford and Howard counties by $1 million, officials are proposing to combine the two Howard routes. The combined route would return stops cut two years ago in Long Reach and Oakland Mills villages, but would eliminate stops in Owen Brown.

The number of buses would drop from seven trips each way daily to five with no midday service except on Fridays. In addition, the state would eliminate the No. 150 route from downtown to Ellicott City and reduce service on No. 320 route serving the U.S. 1 corridor.

"We would love to attract new ridership," Hoge said, but extended routes five years ago did not attract enough riders.

But speaker after speaker argued that cutting service and making what's left more inconvenient will discourage, not attract riders, especially as new homes and businesses are built along Howard's U.S. 1 corridor.

Still, Carol A. Arscott, a Howard resident who is an assistant to state transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, a former Howard County delegate, told the group that while demand for service to Washington is growing, it is withering to Baltimore.

There are 64 bus trips a day to Baltimore and back from the metropolitan area versus 343 to Washington, and demand for rides to the capital is "limitless," Arscott said. Of those totals, 15 trips a day go from Howard County to Baltimore versus 71 a day to Washington, she said.

That didn't impress people like Marlene S. Hendler of Long Reach, who said she has cerebral palsy, arthritis and scoliosis and uses a motorized wheelchair. Every route and stop cut, she said, further limits the mobility of people like her.

Carl Balser, Howard County's transportation planner, said that Howard Transit has grown in ridership from 200,000 a year to more than 600,000 annually in six years by expanding the heavily subsidized local bus system -- a comment that brought applause from the crowd.

Several speakers complained that if the last MTA commuter bus from Baltimore back to Columbia leaves any earlier, they won't have a way home.

"I work 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Baltimore," said Jerry Crane. "There's no way I can change my hours. If we don't keep the 6:09 p.m. stop at Lombard and Charles, I've got to find another way."

Under the proposed schedule, the last bus to Columbia would stop at Lombard and Charles streets at 5:36 p.m.

From December to the end of March, Catherine Hester said, the No. 310 bus she takes home reached St. Paul and Fayette streets on schedule nine times. When the bus is very late or fails to show at all, the next bus is crowded "with 90 people on a bus for 45 minutes," she said.

Paul Brophy, a Columbia resident who doesn't use buses, said every great city, from Tokyo to New York, must have a good transit system.

"This is moving us in exactly the wrong direction," he said. Noting that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. seems committed to smaller government, as well as a smaller transit system, Brophy urged the crowd to "next time, vote for the other guys."

Final decisions on the plan will be made in a few weeks, Hoge said.

Arscott said, "I want to emphasize the word proposals."

All complaints will be examined, she said.

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