ELLICOTT CITY, MD – Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman has announced an important milestone in his initiative to improve public transportation for residents. With the arrival of six new fixed route buses placed into service this month with the Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland (RTA), more than half the fleet serving county riders has been replaced in the last 16 months.
“When I came into office, my administration inherited a fleet in very poor condition,” said Kittleman. “In 2016, 20 of the 42 buses in the RTA fixed route fleet exceeded federal useful life standards. We have worked hard to replace those vehicles and make the service more reliable, more convenient and more comfortable.”
The RTA is a partner organization that provides public transportation across Central Maryland, including Howard County, Anne Arundel County, Northern Prince George’s County and the City of Laurel. In 2018, the RTA delivered more than 1.1 million trips across the three counties. An estimated 60 percent of RTA riders use the service to travel to and from work.
Since July 2017, 24 new buses have been added to the RTA fleet. In addition to the buses entering service this month, the County added three electric buses in July 2017, seven clean diesel buses in December 2017 and eight paratransit buses which were purchased using state and county funds.
Additionally, a new fare policy went into effect on July 1, 2017. Under the policy, seniors age 60 and older and persons with disabilities now ride fixed route buses for free. Already, more than 500 people have been certified to ride for free, doubling the number of senior and disabled riders since the policy took effect. The policy also made fares more consistent across the region.
“With the new transit buses, which are definitely more reliable, I am hearing fewer and fewer complaints from other people, as well as complaints from myself,” said Astamay Curtis, the Chairperson of the Riders’ Advisory Council. “I think the free fare on fixed route buses for seniors and disabled persons is a very good idea that will encourage more people to try buses.” Curtis pointed out she has been dependent on public transit since 2006 when a disability affected her vision and she could no longer pass a driving test.
The six new E-Z Rider II 32-foot low floor, clean diesel, transit buses were acquired in a lease-to-own arrangement over the next ten years. The cost, including financing, is $2.5 million.
“Along with upgrading the bus fleet, we are expediting the improvement of bus stops throughout Howard County,” Kittleman added. “In the last fiscal year alone, we updated 50 bus stops, and hope to do as many as 60 more in the current fiscal year.”
“With the dedicated investment from the County, we are improving RTA route signage using taller poles and reflective signs, to make it easier for riders to see our bus stops from a distance,” said Cristin Tolen, General Manager of the RTA. “New bus shelters are being installed and others are being refurbished. The refurbished shelters are ADA compliant, with wider entrances, bench seating, properly graded ramps and curb cuts, allowing easier rider access on and off the bus.”
The improvements have also been to the benefit of bus operators. “I’ve been working here four years,” said Mike Morgan, the lead supervisor for RTA. “With the modernized buses and the streamlined fare policy, it’s been a great change for RTA. Our operators are eager to drive new buses and have a renewed feeling of confidence knowing that their bus is not going to break down when they go out on their route.”
Kittleman also announced that Howard County has been awarded a $50,000 Transit Innovation Grant from the Maryland Department of Transportation. The money will be used to develop a mobile phone application to create digital tickets for riders. Using the app, riders will be able to buy tickets using debit, credit or prepaid cards. Once the purchase has been made, riders will be able to display the digital tickets on their smartphones, eliminating the need for paper tickets. Paper tickets will remain for people who choose to use them.
The County adopted a Transit Development Plan in May and is working to implement that plan to shorten routes and increase reliability. A public hearing on new route proposals will be held in December. The RTA hopes to add 6,000 hours of new transit service, significantly reducing the travel time from Columbia to Ellicott City from one hour to 25 minutes. The travel time between Columbia and the Gateway Innovation District will be cut by two thirds, from one hour to just 20 minutes.
In other steps to enhance public transportation, a Citizens’ Oversight Commission for the RTA was reconstituted in 2017, and a regional Riders’ Advisory Council was created last month to provide a forum for riders to have their voices heard about the quality and convenience of public transportation.