Hot weather and faulty air conditioners were on the minds of Howard Transit riders as the 26-bus system prepared to switch to a new operator today.
"Drivers and air conditioners -- that's [priorities] 1 and 2," said Ray Ambrose, administrator for Corridor Transportation Corp., which oversees the county-owned bus system and hired Cincinnati-based First Transit Inc. to take over operations.
First Transit's aim is to make the change in contractors from Veolia Transportation Inc., the former contractor, as seamless as possible, Tom Driscoll, First Transit's general manager, told county transportation board members Tuesday night.
But passengers were complaining about problems in the run-up to the change. In June, with Veolia's contract about to expire, a shortage of drivers caused a sporadic problem, sometimes interrupting service, Ambrose said. Air-conditioning failures were another vexation.
"There's no air conditioning on that thing," complained rider Robert Martin, 58, last week as he prepared to board a Red Line bus behind The Mall in Columbia. Martin uses the bus system daily to get to his job in the Columbia Crossing shopping center at Dobbin Road and Route 175.
"This is a Code Red day," Martin said, referring to the hot, muggy, still air Wednesday, when the temperature reached the high 90s. Martin said his first ride on a Green Line bus from his home in Clary's Forest in west Columbia was fine, with a working air conditioner, but the next leg of the journey was to be in a bus ventilated only with small sliding slots above the large, sealed side windows.
"It's unbearable. By the time I get to work, I'm soaking wet," he said, angry that despite his complaints, the problem has continued.
Ambrose said the system has tried to keep up with air-conditioner repairs, but the fleet's buses are beyond their scheduled seven-year life span. Most have been run for more than 300,000 miles. In some cases, the odometers register 400,000 miles. And while the buses are generally well-maintained, the air conditioners have proved particularly troublesome, he said.
Ulman administration officials are about to order two new hybrid diesel-electric buses, using $1.1 million in county funds, but it will take a year to build and deliver them. In recent years, state and federal funding, which normally pays 90 percent of the cost of new buses, has been lacking, and no buses have been replaced, Ambrose said. Ronald Weinstein, the county budget director, said the money to buy the two new buses is unused matching funds set aside over the past eight years to pay the county's 10 percent share of the purchase costs.
"Seven or eight years ago, we were buying eight or 10 [new buses] a year," he said.
Despite that, county taxpayers will pay more for the service when the new contract takes effect today, through fares will not increase.
The new operator will charge the county rates that are 13 percent higher for the fixed-route bus system and more than 50 percent higher for Para-Transit, the service that gives rides by appointment to disabled people.
For fixed-route service, the hourly rate will climb to $59.85 from $55.12 per bus. For Para-Transit, it will rise to $30.80 per trip from $20.45, officials said.
Higher fuel and labor costs are the main culprits, Ambrose said.
At the county transportation board meeting Tuesday night, Driscoll said his firm was gearing up for a maximum effort to produce a smooth transition, though a few vacancies for drivers still exist. Because of the change in operators, drivers who left Veolia over the past month have been hard to replace.
"We're very, very passionate about what we do," Driscoll told board members, noting that the area is a "very competitive" market for finding qualified drivers.
Driscoll, who said he has worked on transit systems in California, overseas as a private consultant and more recently in Kentucky, said his firm was impressed with the good mechanical condition of the system's buses after an inspection June 10.
Driscoll said he and his wife are moving to Savage.
Dick Kirchner, president of Transportation Advocates, a private citizens group interested in promoting mass transit, said at the meeting that he had heard numerous reports, particularly from senior citizens, that service has deteriorated over the past month.
Ambrose replied that Veolia will be assessed financial penalties for whatever shortcomings in service come to light.
Howard County anticipated higher costs for the system and budgeted for an operating rate increase, so the fares for riders will not rise, Ambrose said.
First Transit operates 150 transit systems in 42 states and has leased space in Laurel, in Prince George's County, to store and maintain the Howard buses.
Ambrose said riders who encounter interruptions in service should call 800-270-9553 between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.