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With a new administrator at the helm, Harford Transit has big plans to boost ridership, restructure its routes and work with Aberdeen Proving Ground to help transport thousands of new BRAC-related residents, even though it does not yet know exactly how these changes will happen.

Since taking over in June 2009, administrator Jim Ports said he hopes to make the system easier to use for its 286,000 riders, as well as bring in new ones.

“Part of our goal is to let citizens know that Harford Transit is available and to do that, to be successful with any kind of strategy, you have to have some kind of branding,” he said. “Right now, it’s not standardized, it’s not branded. You have two or three different signs out there right now.”

Alongside a literal re-branding is a deeper attempt to build ridership and increase convenience in using the six-route system, launched in the 1970s under the auspices of the Department of Aging, as something everyone can use or benefit from.

“A lot of people, from my understanding, think Harford Transit is just for the elderly or just the disabled, and it’s clearly not,” Ports explained during a recent interview with Aegis editors.

Contrary to that stereotype, just under a third of those who ride the bus are disabled or elderly, Ports added.

“We are taking them to work, we are taking them to the doctors, we are taking them to school,” he said.

Many riders attend Harford Community College, Ports noted, and are coming from the Route 40 corridor.

“HCC is one of our biggest customers,” he said. When the system was closed during a recent countywide furlough day, “they were very upset with us that we weren’t running. The college heard from all the students that couldn’t get to class and couldn’t participate.”

The county also has 4,500 households without a car, he noted.

“I know that’s hard to comprehend, but that’s part of the segment we serve,” he added.

Ports has been visiting with different community groups, officials from the county’s three municipalities and business groups and community organizations to see how Harford Transit can improve.

“It’s a pretty comprehensive plan moving forward, 1: to get the word out, 2: to improve the system so more people will enjoy it,” he said.

That includes a reworking of the system’s route schedule, which hasn’t changed much since the 1970s.

“To make transit successful, [the schedule] has to be clear, current, on time, and right now there are situations where, for example, you have three minutes to go five miles. That is unattainable and unrealistic and we want our customers to be safe,” he said. “There are some stops we have in shopping centers that run at 7 a.m. Well, nothing is open at 7 a.m.”

The goal is to be 90 percent on time, Ports said, which seems largely anecdotal since he could not say how it would be verified and could not say how often buses are on time now.

Despite trying to increase ridership, the system has no immediate plans to grow in terms of adding new routes and additional vehicles.

“Everybody wants us to expand. Most of the business community wants us to expand,” Ports said. “Right now we cannot entertain any of that, due to the budget constraints to the county. We are trying to reduce our routes to make them more efficient and on time.”

The one caveat on possible expansion is the ever-present specter of a BRAC-induced population boom.

BRAC, Ports said, “is the only thing that we were entertaining a possible expansion [for], to deal with the APG base, and we are heavily lobbied from the congressional team from Maryland to help provide this service.”

“The base [APG] is really looking into a transportation-demand management system. You can’t put everybody on the base in a car. I think everybody understands that. You are going to have to have some kind of mass transit to move people,” he said.

Harford Transit had originally planned to buy 16 new buses over a longer period of time, but is speeding up that process to take advantage of BRAC-related and federal stimulus funds.

“It made sense for us to accept that grant and accept those buses at 100-percent paid for by the federal government,” he said.

It would cost Harford Transit between $600,000 and $800,000 to expand its 39-bus fleet to run additional buses related to BRAC demands.

Ports said he is negotiating with both the Army and Maryland Transit Administration regarding their expectations about Harford Transit’s role in BRAC.

While he said the county is prepared to one day provide some shuttle services between APG and other BRAC heavy employment centers in the county and off-post parking areas, the possibility of having to also provide on-post service could be more costly than the county can afford under the system’s current financial structure.

The possibility of the county providing on-post service may be mitigated by Army security concerns, he added, but this remains a point of negotiations.

Prior to Ports coming on board, Harford Transit had identified sources of funding for a re-branding and did some outreach, including coming up with focus groups, to get feedback.

“We are looking at how we can be more effective and more efficient. Obviously we have to cut costs. Everybody has to cut costs. We are a part of that process with the county executive,” Ports said.

Harford Transit has a budget of almost $9 million for 2010, with slightly more than half of that funded by the federal economic stimulus legislation.

According to budgetary figures Ports supplied, the county government spends about $2.5 million annually to operate Harford Transit, with another $565,000 coming from the state and almost $1.1 million from the federal government, excluding the $4.5 million in stimulus funds in this year’s budget.

That leaves an estimated $233,000 from fare revenue, barely 5 percent of the operating total.

The base Harford Transit fare is $1 per trip, and there are volume discounts available to employers and HCC students, Ports said.

In addition, the system is obligated under federal and state laws to provide more costly door-to-door and specialized vehicle service to handicapped riders and discounted fares for the poor.

Overall, Ports said the service recoups its costs from riders on par with state guidelines, but he also conceded it can do better, which is where bringing in more riders on existing routes and operating more efficiently come into plan.

Public hearings regarding new schedules are set to take place in April or May.

“We are still going to have our flag stops. We have to have a mix of an urban and rural plan,” he said.

The plan fits in with the government’s support of transit as a necessary piece of how the county will operate, Ports said.

“[County executive David] Craig wants to move forward on reducing the carbon footprint, he wants to move forward with making transit available to more citizens,” he said.

Despite the changes and major new boost in funding, the system will stay a rural and suburban one that fits the specific needs of Harford residents, Ports said.

“We will never be like [Maryland Transit Administration]. That’s never going to happen,” he said.

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