John Powell has a plan.
The Howard County transportation administrator wants to untangle what he calls the “spaghetti mesh” of public bus service providers in the Corridor and bring them all under one domain.
That would be an inter-county organization with a board of directors composed of members chosen by Howard County and other participating jurisdictions — to coordinate the effort within Howard, Anne Arundel and the subpockets within, proposed to save $1.3 million to $1.8 million on the present spend of the Central Maryland Regional Transit (CMRT).
That’s Powell’s idea for the establishment of what would be known as the Regional Transit Agency (RTA) of Central Maryland.
But to some observers, it sounds like a plan that is already in use by CMRT — Powell’s previous employer — which would fall by the wayside under Powell’s scenario, if CMRT doesn’t win the contract to manage the new agency.
In addition, employees and board members of CMRT question whether Powell will be able to realize such savings, saying that his numbers simply don’t work. Furthermore, they say that his plan is actually a rehash of the plan that was formed before he left CMRT for Howard County.
How It Would Work
Powell explained how his ideas for the RTA would come to fruition.
“Instead of each jurisdiction giving their funding directly to CMRT, they would funnel that funding through Howard County,” Powell said. “In the future, if this transit organization evolves from an agency to an authority, then the funding can bypass Howard County and go directly to the authority.
“In the short term, funding to operate the system is what it is: Local jurisdictions already include funding for these transportation services in their budgets,” he said. “We expect to see a substantial savings [noted above] by establishing the RTA, so that will stay status quo.”
Today, Powell doesn’t see the need for any additional funding source.
“As this [concept] evolves down the road, depending on growth and demand, there may be a need to evaluate things and to secure a dedicated funding source, if needed, to support public transportation,” he said, “but that’s going to be something for people sitting on the [evaluation] commission to determine.”
The biggest change would be the existence of only one contract with the transportation management agency for all of the regional service it provides — written by Howard County on behalf of all the participants, who will be involved in the process through intergovernmental agreements, memoranda of understanding and other means.
Howard County has insisted on taking the lead on creating this agency, owing to its majority share of the funding pie; the county will oversee all of the funding until an authority exists that’s able to handle funding on its own.
Powell discussed this during a recent address he gave before the Transportation Advocates of Howard County, where he noted a need for legislation at some point.
“We’re setting this up to be a regional transportation agency, which can exist at this governmental level without the need for state legislation,” Powell said. “State legislation is required to create a regional authority, which we expect to happen, and we expect [an authority] could be created in a very short period of time.”
As for the timeline to establish the RTA, Powell said a request for proposal should be issued within the next two months. The winning bidder will be required to establish a wholly-owned subsidiary in January 2014, a board is expected to be seated the following month, and service operations under the new entity would begin on July 1, 2014.
Inputs on the Mark
George Cardwell, planning administrator for the Anne Arundel County Department of Planning & Zoning, said that Howard County “is taking the lead to set up the RTA because, I feel, that they could have the most to lose [due to the size of its transportation budget],” noting that Howard’s is an $8 million operation, while Anne Arundel’s is just $1 million.
As the situation stands, Howard County has a contractual arrangement with the CMRT, the manager, to address any issues that arise, but not with the operator, which is First Transit.
“So they have to go through CMRT,” said Cardwell. “Our interest is in seeing a public agency, with the emphasis on public, created to provide transit that meets the needs of the public,” noting that Anne Arundel County doesn’t operate a transit entity, but is also involved with the CMRT.
He also feels that the savings could indeed be $1.3 million to $1.8 million under Powell’s RTA plan.
“I’ve read Howard County’s reports and agree with the inputs,” Cardwell said. “It has run some numbers that have to do with fixed costs; currently, it pays for two profit centers, as we do, CMRT and First Transit. So, we’ve ended up with multiple layers of management that are doing the same thing.”
Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman was also contacted for comment for this article. She did not respond but did say, toward the end of her recent State of the County address, that discussions about the idea are in the early stages.
One County in Control?
Other local transportation administrators are interested in Powell’s plan, too, such as Laurel Mayor Craig Moe — but not necessarily at the expense of the CMRT’s existence.
“We’ve had a long relationship with CMRT, and we’ve always supported inter-jurisdictional transit services,” said Moe. “We’re willing to support anything that will continue to provide our city with the regional transit options [our] citizens need.”
But as for Howard County taking over the reins, he’s not so sure.
“I’m not sure I want to go that far as to say it’s better to have Howard County controlling everything,” said Moe, “but I have to recognize that anything that moves us closer to improved regional service is a step in the right direction.”
Moe was uncomfortable about the possibility of RTA’s establishment making the CMRT’s existence a moot point. “Oh, I hope that [circumstance doesn’t occur]. In the worst-case scenario, if [the RTA] doesn’t get up and running, we will still provide transit services in Laurel one way or another.”
Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association, said there are “a lot of different governance models across the United States being used in regional transportation that include joint agreements like this, with one entity assuming the lead role.
“The most important aspect of this type of arrangement is how to do it transparently,” said Guzzetti, “because ultimately, a jurisdiction [that cedes authority] will answer to its own constituents, and it needs to be able to show that everything is being done properly.
“The overall idea, though,” he said, “is that since transit tends to be regional in nature, it naturally follows that it should be organized in a regional way, and governance may need to change over time.”
Numbers in Question
That point has been understood at CMRT for 25 years, dating back to its early days as the Corridor Transportation Corp. (CTC), which provided service in Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, and the City of Laurel. And Jim Perez, CEO of CMRT, feels that it’s basically business as usual on his end.
Perez said that the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Mass Transit Administration, the City of Laurel and Anne Arundel County “are all happy with us. In addition, Anne Arundel County still has a contract with us [that will expire June 30] and has not informed us to say they plan to switch to another provider.”
Nor has CMRT been approached by Howard County, even to develop a transition plan. “We have not been invited into any discussions they have had with anyone about anything,” he said, adding, “and, to our knowledge, ground has not been broken on the maintenance facility in Howard County that the RTA is tentatively scheduled to open on July 1, 2014.”
Like Powell, Perez also understands the importance of a transportation entity becoming an authority. “In fact, we went to the state legislature to introduce legislation that would make CMRT an authority,” he said.
Actually, Perez said that Powell tried to do just that when he was running CMRT — and was unsuccessful.
Jay Baldwin, of TD Bank, treasurer of CMRT, added that he’s concerned that the $1.3 million to $1.8 million in savings that has been discussed by Powell is unrealistic [Stanley Milesky, Howard County’s director of finance, did not return a second call for comment regarding the validity of Powell’s figures].
The Howard County plan “has not been analyzed concerning administrative cost savings,” Baldwin said, “and the ability to increase service without a corresponding increase in the contributions from the entities involved,” meaning Howard and Anne Arundel counties, and the cities of Annapolis and Laurel.
“I have not seen any definitive numbers that would indicate, to me, how this approach can work. I’ve been a commercial banker for more than 25 years, and I’m always skeptical when numbers are presented without any corresponding back-up,” he said. “I have seen nothing definitive to indicate that what is being proposed by John regarding the administrative cost savings can actually be accomplished while not only keeping the same level of service, but actually increasing it.”
A Few More Observations
Baldwin is not alone in his reservations. CMRT Board Member Stuart Title, of A.J. Properties in Odenton, and the former Anne Arundel County executive, Janet Owens, offered similar thoughts.
“I was surprised that the RTA concept originally conceived and presented to Mr. [Howard County Executive Ken] Ulman by CMRT two years ago, which he rejected at the recommendation of his Transportation Commission, suddenly reappeared as [Howard County’s] idea and the direction the county should go with its transportation operations,” Title said.
“It’s kind of ironic that Mr. Powell, the immediate previous CMRT CEO, has cast a negative light on the good work CMRT continues to do, as well as the policies he put in place during his three years of managing the system,” he said. “One has to think that if CMRT operations are so wasteful and inefficient, why in the world did Howard County hire him?”
Title also pointed out the positives that have occurred since Perez was hired as CMRT CEO. “Since Mr. Powell left the CMRT for the Howard County job, Jim has increased ridership, decreased customer complaints, increased on-time efficiency and improved employee morale.”
Owens was also pointed in her comments.
“It’s taken [CTC/CMRT] more than 20 years to get to the point where we are delivering a range of much-needed transportation services,” said Owens, “and we’re seeing two decades worth of efforts by the local business and government community destroyed by John Powell.”
Owens, who was involved for many years with the Anne Arundel County School Board before she ran for county executive, called the situation “the worst thing that I’ve ever seen in government. What [Powell’s] doing by trying to establish the RTA is a systematic attack on a small, nonprofit agency that has consistently improved its service, notably its on-time performance, with cleaner, more-efficient vehicles — since he left.”
“The whole point of these regional services is that an entity likes ours, generally speaking, proves more economical than a county running the service,” said Perez, who echoed Guzzetti, saying, “From a national standpoint, it’s not unusual for a county or a state to outsource its transportation needs.”
But he lamented that the situation with the RTA is taking attention away from the work at hand.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re talking about this situation, because our purpose is to serve the public, so citizens can get to work, school, doctor’s appointments, the movies or visit family,” said Perez. “It’s taking the attention away from what our focus should be.”