Bus routes for Columbia will be reduced, not cut

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County commuter bus riders got a reprieve yesterday from a state proposal to eliminate all service between Baltimore and Columbia as well as along the U.S. 1 corridor to Laurel.

A compromise on budget cuts hammered out about midnight Thursday and announced yesterday will save all three threatened bus routes, though it will reduce the number of trips, starting Jan. 12. Howard County government also agreed to contribute $200,000 this fiscal year to keep the buses running, and the state agreed to extend another route now serving Ellicott City to Columbia.

"I am delighted they found a compromise," said Sharonlee J. Vogel, chairwoman of Transportation Advocates, a private group that supports transit services.

"A few people will have to adjust their schedules, but it keeps people employed. To do away with public transit options in this market is not thinking," she said.

The deal, announced by Gov. Martin O'Malley as he declared Ellicott City "Capital for a Day," would keep six trips each way for routes 310 and 311 serving Columbia, instead of eight trips northbound and nine southbound. The 320 line to Laurel along U.S. 1 will offer three trips in each direction, instead of five northbound and six southbound. In addition, the 150 route that serves Long Gate Shopping Center in Ellicott City will extend to Columbia's Town Center. The changes will save the state an estimated $634,000 a year, plus the money Howard Executive Ken Ulman agreed to pay.

Hundreds of commuters packed a Nov. 18 Maryland Transit Administration hearing in Columbia to protest the proposed elimination of the service as part of the $1 billion cut to transportation caused by slowing revenues.

Several people had testified at the hearing that without the bus service they would be forced to resign their jobs because physical problems don't allow them to drive. Most offered to pay higher fares, and others decried removing the service just months after ridership increased because of high gas prices.

One rider, Mona G. Tsoukleris of Clarksville, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School Of Pharmacy in Baltimore, said she has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. Tsoukleris, who had said she would be forced to quit her job without the bus, yesterday described the compromise as "just terrific."

O'Malley, in a prepared statement, said: "Based on the extreme hardship such a step would have on citizens, as well as the lack of viable transportation alternatives, MTA will maintain a reduced commuter bus schedule on these routes."

Ulman thanked O'Malley.

"We are well aware of the tough fiscal decisions being made at both the state and local level," he said.

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