Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ride-On Woes

By Sharon Dooley.

The proposed county budget is suggesting cuts for many current Ride-on routes and outright elimination for others. Current bus riders fear loss of connectivity and bus drivers, who are county employees, face loss of jobs.

At the outset, it must be acknowledged that the county faces significant budget issues and cuts are to be expected across the county in services. This area, however, is one where the impact would be widespread and reconsideration is necessary. The move, suggested to save slightly over a million dollars is not – in the long run – a wise decision. Across the county, neighborhood activists, government workers, societies for disabled children and adults and school communities are speaking out and urging opposition to these changes. From down county to mid county, from Olney to Germantown, buses are being layered in flyers, alerts and petitions. Community groups are meeting, emails are being shared and plans are in place to have a good turnout at the Department of Transportation hearing on Monday February1st. The hearing is open to the public and currently has over 60 speakers scheduled to testify. Available to the Shady Grove Metro Red Line travelers most easily, the hearing is being held in the cafeteria of the Executive Office building at 101 Monroe Street in Rockville at 6:30.

Currently 23 routes (mostly part-time Rush hour only or weekend routes) are scheduled for complete elimination and 6 other routes are scheduled for cut-backs. It is most counter productive in a difficult economy to make commuter travel less accessible to transit and more expensive. It is further short-sighted to directly impact those who cannot or do not travel by cars but still want to be productive members of this community. Finally, if we are to ever be a green community, we must encourage less vehicular traffic.

In a community meeting, shop steward Nelvin Ransome of UFCW Local 1994 said that 20 bus driver positions are currently unfilled and 33 more are slated for elimination if these cuts go through. He said his union is working on creative solutions to maybe create a senior driver force where part-time routes could be served by retirees working limited hours and not requiring benefits. He indicated that his members were thankful for the community support that they have received across the county. Last year many of these same routes were slated for elimination but were saved when the county residents spoke up; this year many are confused since few issues have changed.

In the community of Olney, many areas are far from the town center where Metro buses run. The community is more than 10 miles from both Glenmont and Shady Grove Metro stations and almost as far from the Rockville Metro – the terminal ends of the two Rush Hour only Ride-Ons that serve the community (Routes #52 & #53). These 2 buses travel many miles as they go in and around neighborhood streets then run a circular route between the town and the Metros. Recently riders have kept tallies of the numbers of riders indicating many days when there were standees due to lack of capacity. Others have noted the many times fare boxes were broken or absent entirely. Many complain that the ridership is undercounted. Some indicate that because the community is further out – Olney is only 5 miles from the Howard County line - that numbers are irrelevant. The Ride-on had always been a promised link to the rest of the county and that link should not be severed.

If the county is truly committed to Smart Growth principles, then cutting off rush hour Ride- ons is absolutely the wrong decision. To reinforce this, the mid-county advisory board, (MCAB), Action for Transit (ACT) and the Greater Olney Civic Association (GOCA), among many other groups, have all spoken in opposition to these suggested cuts. In Olney it was thought that another 300 cars would enter the rush hour commutes should rush hour not have options.

Many in the Upcounty live in widely spaced communities. There are fewer apartments where many riders could be served by a single stop; their buses have to travel greater distances with lesser ridership. They also have less access to Metro bus lines; this is seen especially when students stay late at High Schools past activity bus schedules and their schools are off the beaten track. Communities far from the Metro stations such as those in Olney, Damascus, Clarksburg, Poolesville and Germantown also pay taxes and should not be distanced from a transit connectivity just because they are “far out” in a geographic sense. Policies that say we need to car-pool and do not provide commuter lots or Express buses do not jive. Policies that do not serve all of the residents of the county are not reasonable. The Upcounty should not be isolated or dismissed; it should not be forced further into gridlock situations.

Until down county urban areas can benefit from the promised Purple Line, they needs Ride-on buses.

Until areas in the Upcounty can reap the benefits of proposals such as the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) – long on the books - or the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) suggested by Council Member Marc Elrich, they need Ride-on buses. The county must keep its inferred promises to each of the communities in the area, that the old and infirm will not be isolated in their homes, that those without cars will not only be given the options of walking or taxis, that our school children with working parents can get safely back home, that public employees who do a good job will keep that job.

See you at the hearing!

Sharon Dooley is President of GOCA the community civic group which serves the more than 40,000 residents of the greater Olney area – and a frequent MPW contributor.