When Howard County's transportation chief looks at a flow chart of mass transit service in the suburbs south of Baltimore, he sees a tangle of "spaghetti mesh" that ill serves the region's workers, senior citizens and handicapped.
John Powell Jr. hopes to bring order to that chaos next year by uniting Howard and Anne Arundel County bus services under a single entity that would eventually morph into the state's first regional transit authority. Annapolis and Laurel officials are considering joining the effort.
"This is a quality-of-life issue," Powell said. "It's getting people to jobs, to health clinics and senior centers, to the places they want and need to be."
State and local governments now spend a combined $14 million a year on transit in the Howard-Anne Arundel region. The proposed Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland would take government out of the business of running buses and save at least $1.3 million annually, transportation officials estimate.
"It would create one entity with a single purpose and a single brand with a uniform fare structure and direct oversight from the funding organizations," said Powell, who was appointed a year ago by Howard County Executive Ken Ulman to find transportation solutions. "We believe this is the only way we're going to meet the demands of the region."
Getting workers to the job-rich corridor that includes BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, Maryland Live Casino and Arundel Mills, and the Fort Meade/National Security Agency complex is not only a top priority of local jurisdictions, it also is driving a project by civic leaders.
The BWI Business Partnership and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance recognized the transportation disconnect when they launched the Last Mile, a project to help identify and address the public transportation gaps around those economic hubs. The groups received a $51,000 grant from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and soon will begin surveying employers and workers to pinpoint needs.
Michele Whelley, president of the transportation alliance, said the project meshes nicely with the regional transportation concept.
"We have employers who have to fill jobs, especially entry-level jobs, and people being trained for jobs who can't get to them," Whelley said. "To have a regional system rather than everyone in it for themselves makes sense. There's no turf here. We're actually talking to each other, and we know what each other is doing. Maybe this is a sea change."
The demand for mass transit is there. Howard Transit, HT Ride and Connect-a-Ride services are used by 2 million riders a year in Howard, northern Prince George's County and western Anne Arundel.
But mass transit is a patchwork quilt, Powell said. The region receives transportation money from nine federal, state and local government entities. A dozen companies and agencies supply the rides.
Following the money can be a dizzying exercise. Take, for example, how money gets to First Transit, a for-profit organization that operates in both counties. The state Department of Social Services gives transportation funding to Anne Arundel County, which sends it back to state officials at the Maryland Transit Administration, who dole it out to Central Maryland Regional Transit Corp., a nonprofit service that oversees some regional services, which then sends funding to First Transit.
"It's spaghetti mesh," said Powell, who created a flow chart to track all the pieces. "And it can make your head spin."
Improving transportation circulation will require both counties and other participants to abandon parochial thinking, Ulman said.
"This is expensive stuff we're talking about, and if we buy together, we can find savings," Ulman said. "Before we go building new facilities, we have to look at existing resources and figure out how to pull them together."
Last week, Powell and his Anne Arundel counterpart, George Cardwell, took their proposal to the Annapolis City Council, which faces a $900,000 deficit this year in the city bus system.
Cardwell said a regional agency creates "collective strength" to serve a portion of the 60 percent of Howard workers and 43 percent of Anne Arundel workers who commute elsewhere.
"We live in a world of regional transit. There are borders out there that are political and arbitrary. But they are not realistic," he said.
A request for proposals seeking a transit manager will go out July 1. The Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland would be established Jan. 1, and a commission consisting of representatives of the jurisdictions, funding agencies and major employers will be established to oversee it.
On a parallel track, Howard County is developing a $7.2 million bus maintenance terminal in Savage that will serve as the new agency's operational center. About 120 vehicles will operate out of the site once it opens next summer.
In time, perhaps as early as the 2014 legislative session, the agency will seek permission from the General Assembly to become an authority so that it can accept federal funds directly.
Annapolis officials seemed upbeat and promised a timely review of the proposal. Several council members said they would need assurances that they would have some say over operations and that local transit workers would retain their jobs.
"The big picture is we're looking for savings," said Mayor Joshua Cohen. "Conceptually, the benefits are obvious."