Howard County Office of Transportation Administrator Clive Graham appeared before the Howard County Council in April to seek endorsement of the Central Maryland Transit Development Plan (TDP) that will guide transit in the county for the next five-to-10 years.
“Over the years, our service in Howard County has not been as good as it could and should be,” Graham said. “We are turning it around. We have a better fleet, we have new management, we’re putting new policies in place, and the service is getting better,” he said.
Transit improvement is a constant struggle for any provider, he said, and the TDP could bring some much-needed benefits to the operations of the Regional Transportation Agency (RTA), which operates routes in Howard County and the adjacent jurisdictions of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, and the City of Laurel.
The plan requires the endorsement of locally elected officials, Graham said.
Among the challenges the RTA has seen in recent years are systemic problems tied to the merging of Howard Transit and the Connect-A-Ride operations, aging fleet issues and a 10% to 15% loss of ridership during the past three years.
“This is a problem that’s national in scope,” Graham said. “Many transit systems across the country, including WMATA down the road, are experiencing this. Part of the plan is a response to this trend.”
The new TDP takes a four-pronged approach to improve transit in Central Maryland. According to Graham, it targets performance and service improvements, proposes a complete reconfiguration of bus routes that have not been reviewed for nearly 20 years, expands service to parts of the county that have grown and are now underserved, and provides new options to address the challenges of providing paratransit services.
“The vision for the plan is that it be a system of choice, not a vision of last resort,” he said.
Andrew Johnson, RTA’s assistant general manager of operations, said one major improvement of the plan would be free fixed-route service to seniors and ADA passengers, which would alleviate some of the pressures on paratransit operations.
RTA officials are hoping to implement a number of other ideas by July 1 to help make the TDP effective.
“We have been able to make minor structural time changes to many of the routes,” he said. “What needs to take place is [to] start from scratch to sort out new and better alternatives to what is available now — shorter routes, better connectivity, shorter headways, enhanced and extended service for longer service hours, and greater weekend coverage.”
Fred Goettemoeller, speaking for Friends of Bridge Columbia, said the plan also envisions a high-capacity bus corridor extending from the hospital through Downtown, Oakland Mills and Long Reach to Columbia Gateway, using Bridge Columbia across Route 29 as its lynchpin.
The County Council revisited legislation in April that would allow composting facilities and natural wood waste recycling on preservation parcels. The discussion reignited a contentious debate between farmers looking for alternative sources of income, and county residents who say the practice has environmental consequences that are not contained within the physical boundaries of property.
“The 293 Howard County farms have had to diversify their businesses to maintain their business plans so we can afford to pay the constantly rising costs of taxes, fuel, insurance, machinery and buildings, as well as hire some extra labor we need,” said Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau.
Farmer Keith Ohlinger, of Woodbine, said he also supports the legislation, which is sponsored by Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4) and Councilman Greg Fox (D-Dist. 5) and is opposed by Councilmembers Calvin Ball (D-Dist. 2) and Jen Terrasa (D-Dist. 3).
Continuing to disallow mulching operations on preservation easements will “continue to limit what can be done because somebody didn’t like something, and [these farmers] are going to end up with nothing,” Ohlinger said. “Let them sell [development rights], these folks can have as many developments as they want and argue with neighbors about door colors and whatever they want, just let us get out.”
Corliss Glennon, of Dayton, said people in opposition are not against farmers or farming. “What is actually valid are hazards and the health risks that are involved, and the safety risks,” she said, which can affect groundwater, as well as passing pedestrians and cyclists. “I’m sorry it’s come to this and become partisan.”
According to Howard County Citizens Association President Stu Kohn, of Laurel, “Our theme from the very beginning regarding mulching, composting and natural wood waste is simply for the farm, by the farm and on the farm.”
“I’m opposed to industrial mulching,” said Jim Walsh, of Woodbine. “We have a gray area of law as to whether or not [commercial] mulching and composting is agricultural.”
In response to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s introduction of a new geographic area sample for the Consumer Price Index, the council is being asked to amend references in the Howard County Code for urban consumers, for the Howard County Retirement Plan and for the Howard County Police and Fire Employees’ Retirement Plans.
According to Jen Sager, of the Department of County Administration, the bureau discontinued the Baltimore-Washington Index and replaced it with the Baltimore-Columbia-Towson Consumer Price Index, necessitating changes to four references in the County Code.
The council was also asked to endorse an economic development project involving a relocation and expansion project by Panera LLC, which is looking to Howard County for relocation of a regional dough production facility.
“This will be a project for the purchase of real property, and the installation of machinery and equipment,” said Howard County Economic Development Authority Vice President Beth Woodring. “It will be 55,000 square feet, and they will be employing 120.”
On another note, the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation recognized the Howard County Public School System as one of the 2018 Best Communities for Music Education Districts.
Designations are made to districts and schools demonstrating an exceptionally high commitment and access to music education. HCPSS is among four Maryland districts and one of 583 school districts across the United States to receive the honor, and has now received the award for three consecutive years.