Regional public transit needs reviewed

Gaps in Southern Maryland’s public transportation services, such as those provided by Charles County’s VanGO bus system, were a topic of discussion during a recent workshop convened by the Maryland Transit Administration and the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland.

Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft may be a way to help fill the gap in Southern Maryland’s public transportation services for seniors and people with disabilities, participants in a regional transportation workshop learned recently.

The conversation about supplementing gaps in public transit with private-sector options was one of several that took place during a daylong workshop convened by the Maryland Transit Administration and the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland late last month in Waldorf.

Maryland is in the process of updating the regional transit plans in five of its six “planning regions” in order to continue qualifying for federal funding that helps pay for transportation services for seniors and people with disabilities. The Southern Maryland planning region consists of Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties.

Dan Dalton, a senior transportation planner for the consulting firm KFH Group, which conducted the workshop, said that around 40 people from Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties attended the workshop at the Greater Waldorf Jaycees Community Center, including representatives of local government transit agencies and nonprofit organizations that serve people with disabilities, older adults and low-income residents.

“The primary goal of this workshop was [that] we need to update this coordinated plan, but one of the other things we find from this type of workshop is it’s the only opportunity that ... regional stakeholders like this are actually all in a room at the same time,” Dalton explained. “I think [local stakeholders] find it even more useful [as a way] to make connections with people.”

Dalton said that although KFH is still synthesizing the comments from the various breakout groups that spent the morning discussing transportation needs in their communities and how to address them, there were no dramatic changes since the last time the Southern Maryland Coordinated Public Transit — Human Services Transportation Plan was updated in 2015.

“Not surprisingly, from a needs standpoint people talked about maintaining the existing services but also having expanded travel options,” Dalton said. “Not just in public transit, but in all different types of transit modes.”

A common refrain that Dalton heard during the workshop, as with other regional workshops that he has attended so far, is the need for transit services to cover more areas and to run more frequently.

“Southern Maryland is a challenging transition point because ... you have very urbanized areas but then you have very rural areas too,” Dalton said. “All three [counties] have a public transit system, and that’s kind of the spine, so to speak, but then how do you serve all the other rural areas?”

Dalton noted that, by federal law, para-transit services — supplemental bus services for people with disabilities — are only allowed to operate within a three-quarter-mile radius of an established route, which limits their ability to meet the needs of rural residents who live outside that radius.

One way to fill those gaps in rural coverage might be to use peer-to-peer ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber, which were just getting off the ground when the last regional plan was being drafted, as well as taxis.

“From a needs standpoint, we hear this a good bit, that people need services that are kind of impromptu, that meet needs that come up [where] their options may be limited,” Dalton said. For example, “They wake up in the morning and they’re not doing well or their child’s sick ... or they want to do something that’s not medically related.”

Volunteer transportation services, such as the Neighbor Ride program in Howard County, which offers free car rides to senior residents, are another option that government agencies and local nonprofits may want to consider to help fill transit gaps in remote areas.

Workshop participants emphasized the importance of maintaining existing public transportation services, especially given the risk of fluctuations in federal funding. Participants also stressed the need to inform residents about the availability of transit options in their communities.

“It’s great to have services out there, but if people aren’t aware of it then that doesn’t do them any good,” Dalton said.

The state transit administration expects to release the updated regional plan by the end of this year.

“Since the last regional [coordinated public transit planning] cycle in 2015, [the Maryland Transit Administration] has been informed about the increased transportation needs of individuals with disabilities and older adults,” agency spokesperson Brittany Marshall told the Maryland Independent in a written statement. “[The Maryland Transit Administration] is committed to addressing these needs, as the agency will continue to seek input through public comment.”

The Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland works with the transit services in the three Southern Maryland counties as well as with the state transit agency on regional planning issues. Yolanda Hipski, the council’s regional transit coordinator, said that there was a general consensus among participants that coordination among the region’s stakeholders needs to improve.

“We need to work more regionally together on consolidating our resources,” Hipski said. “This could be done by computer systems [and] by continuing our coordination efforts that we currently have.”

Hipski said that the tri-county council holds quarterly meetings with local transit providers to discuss issues and improve coordination among them.

“I think we are moving in a good direction in terms of [developing] a regional sense of helping each other out,” Hipski said. “That’s strong.”

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews