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Transit agency faces demands of higher ridership

The Baltimore Sun

For the third consecutive year, ridership has increased on Harford County's public transportation system, rising to nearly 300,000 passengers, and many are clamoring for more and longer routes and expanded hours.

A few residents say they just want the chance to catch a bus.

As officials unveiled the county's proposed fiscal year 2009 transportation plan Thursday at Aberdeen City Hall, which was chosen because of its proximity to bus routes, two Darlington residents asked for bus service to their rural area.

"We have more and more houses coming all the time," said Darlington resident Joan Webster. "We have to have buses to relieve congestion."

Wendell Baxter said a bus is often the only option for a teenager working an after-school job. Baxter also works with the homeless and would like to see service from a homeless shelter to jobs.

Darlington might have to wait for bus service, at least until there are enough riders to fill a bus on a regularly scheduled route.

"I don't want to be callous to one or two people, but we are mass transit and we run 20-seat buses," said Michael Hannan, administrator of Harford Transit Service, the county's public transportation agency.

"We won't have service to Darlington tomorrow, but we are willing to explore that," he said.

At the annual transportation hearing, several people called for shelters at all stops, and others asked for evening and weekend service. Hannan called the requests reasonable and promised to see which might be possible.

Hannan previewed the system's proposals for next year, including a $1.6 million request for 10 new buses to replace those with the highest mileage in the fleet of 30. He made the same request last year and received three.

"If you don't ask, you never will get what you need," he said. "I will keep asking for 10 every year, and that's a third of our fleet."

The county's public transportation service, which receives federal, state and local funding, operates nine bus routes, predominantly in Harford's southern and central areas, on a $5.7 million annual budget.

The agency has recently begun an analysis of every route to make sure that drivers are adhering to schedules. The study will look at geography, demographics and current levels of service.

"We want to know what changes we have to make," Hannan said. "We are hearing people can't get to their jobs in the evening. We want to redevelop our plan with an eye to the future and to BRAC."

BRAC, the nationwide military relocation that will bring 10,000 jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground within the next four years, will figure heavily into transportation plans, he said.

While much of the mass transit focus for BRAC will be on the railroad, Hannan is looking to buses to get riders from the train station to jobs on and near the base.

The Maryland Transit Administration is planning to open a $4.5 million MARC train station in Edgewood by 2011. The parking lot will be built wide enough to accommodate at least two 40-foot buses at a time.

"When the station is finished, we will adjust our schedule to serve the station," Hannan said.

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