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Some fresh ideas may help County Commuter

November 16, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

I would not ordinarily write about the Washington County Commuter bus system. With a county contribution of about $400,000 toward the current fiscal year's $1.7 million budget, it's not the largest local department. For example, just maintaining the two county office buildings on West Washington Street in downtown Hagerstown costs $300,000 a year.

But I changed my mind after hearing County Commissioner John Munson's Sept. 23 call to shut down the system, followed by his improvised plan to change it into an on-demand taxi-voucher system.

I agree with Munson's desire to find savings and improve service. But to do that, elected officials have to do what I did recently - make some phone calls and listen and do some research.

For instance, how did Transit Service of Frederick County recently notch a 21 percent increase in ridership?

Sherry Burford, the director there, told me that they revamped the system a year ago to make sure they adequately covered areas with the most demand. They also made sure the buses that run the system's seven routes meet hourly at the Transit Center, where MARC trains leave for the metropolitan area.

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It's not Grand Central Station. There are no coffee machines or food vendors, but Burford said it is "a safe off-street location for people to make connections."

Contrast that with the County Commuter's transfer point, which is underneath a railroad bridge. It may be sheltered from the rain and snow, but a recent consultant report said that in winter, the breeze shoots through with a "wind tunnel" effect.

The message, intended or not, is that bus riders are tolerated rather than welcomed. County Commuter would like to shift it elsewhere, though judging by the recent reaction of one downtown developer, not everybody wants a bus stop in front of their properties.

But a survey of Frederick County bus riders found, just as a local survey did, that half of those who ride the bus aren't indigents but people going to work and that 80 percent of all riders don't have access to a car.

In that September meeting, Kevin Cerrone, the system's director, was ready to present a consultant report by the KFH Group Inc., that recommended reconfiguring some routes and eliminating others. It could save the county $27,000 a year, he said.

The study runs more than 30 pages and if Commissioner Munson reads it, he'll find some surprises. Somthing akin to his idea for an on-demand system for the county's outlying areas is discussed, as is a proposal to increase ridership by cutting the basic fare - now $1.25 - to $1.

Though the report estimates that the move might draw 5,000 additional riders, it would also lead (in the short term) to a loss of more than $25,000. But for the long term it might get more people to try to the bus.

If people thought about it, when you average out your expenses, it costs more than that just to start a car. If they thought about how much they could save, some might conclude they could take the bus a lot of places and let the car sit at home.

But riding the bus is not the accepted thing to do in Washington County. Munson is hardly the first politician to send the message that public transportation is a waste of taxpayers' money. As Cerrone said in September, everybody has seen a nearly-empty bus, so it's an easy target. But those buses are usually at the beginning or end of a run, when few passengers are on board.

Could the system use smaller buses? Maybe in the future, Cerrone said. But under federal grant rules, if those purchased in the late 1990s are sold now, the county would have to pay back the feds on a pro-rated basis, then purchase new, smaller buses at additional cost.

And so as easy as it might be to denounce what looks like waste, the issue is more complicated than it first appears.

It takes vision to realize that every person who can be persuaded to ride a bus is someone whose car won't clog the roads or needs a parking spot built at public expense. It also takes some political courage to persuade voters instead of just playing to their prejudices.

So how do we get more people to ride the bus and reduce the per-passenger cost of service? The system's best marketing tool in previous years has been to offer free bus rides for a week.

That's not enough. I would offer free single-ride passes at events like the Western Maryland BluesFest. Who can resist picking up something for free? Once they've tried it, it might become a habit.

Making bus system information easier to find on the county's Web site wouldn't hurt either. At present you have to know the bus system is called "County Commuter" to find it in the alphabetical directory.

Once you're there - www.washco- md.net/public_works/commuter/trans.html- there's plenty of information, including the fare structure.

That brings me to my next point. A monthly pass for unlimited rides is $50, which would be $600 a year.

Why not sell yearly passes for $250 or $300? It might sound too cheap, but I figure it would be like a health spa membership, purchased in good faith, but not overused and non-refundable in any case.

Such a pass would be the perfect holiday gift for an aging mom or dad and a subtle hint that it's time to let somebody else do the driving. If it doesn't work, the county wouldn't have to offer them again, but if the system never tries anything it hasn't done before, in 20 years we'll be hearing another county commissioner grumbling about the buses again.

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