Howard County lawmakers, following the lead of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, have been working to make the county the next stop in the push for public transit being considered in Annapolis.
Del. Virginia Thomas (D-Columbia) is trying to line up support for a light rail system that would run along either I-70 or Rte. 29. The idea behind her proposal is to assume that the governor's $290 million plan to bring light rail mass transit, similar to streetcar systems, to Baltimore and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties will be approved by the General Assembly and then "make sure our needs aren't overlooked in the process," she said.
County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, meanwhile, has been discussing with state transportation officials the possibility of bringing the Maryland Rail Commuter Service system, called MARC, into Columbia. MARC trains run on existing heavy rail lines.
Louis Pinkney, the county transportation coordinator, said Bobo wants to extend the commuter trains, which stop in Elkridge and Laurel but not Columbia, along a freight train track that runs from Jessup to the General Electric plant south of Rte. 175.
Thomas, an advocate of public transportation since her days on the Howard County Council, said she has already discussed her concerns with Schaefer in person and in a letter last week, and that he was enthusiastic, but noncommittal.
"I told him how glad I was to have an advocate of public transit in Annapolis," she said. "He said he was delighted to hear that I agreed with him, but the main thing right now is to get his proposal through. His point was, if you can't get it started, you can't expand it."
So far, Thomas has enlisted the support of the county Chamber of Commerce, which listed getting a light rail system for the I-70 corridor on its legislative agenda for the year. She said she plans to get in touch with the Columbia Council and several village boards to ask them to write letters endorsing the governor's transit plan. She also wants to poll other Howard County legislators to determine where they stand on the issue.
Del. Susan Buswell (D-Elkridge) said the idea of bringing light rail to Howard "makes eminent good sense. There is no question that we should get cars off the road before we start choking to death as in Montgomery."
But she added that she would hesitate to support Schaefer's light rail plan this year in the hope of getting it extended to Howard next year until transportation officials have studied the needs of the state as a whole. Because any light rail system is bound to be expensive, the county might be better off pursuing Bobo's plan to extend the MARC heavy rail line, Buswell said.
Del. Robert Kittleman (R-West Friendship), chairman of the county's House delegation, said he was concerned that all the excitement over public transit generated by the governor's plan would lead other lawmakers to abandon their lobbying efforts on behalf of Howard's highways, the system used by the majority of commuters.
He said that he, too, would be unwilling to support a light rail system until the state had done a more comprehensive study of its needs. Kittleman added that the competition for state approval for similar projects promises to be fierce, and even if the delegation presented a united front there was no guarantee Howard would be next in line.
Pinkney said that he and Bobo had stressed in their discussions with state officials that Howard's location halfway between Washington and Baltimore made it an ideal candidate for state funding.
If approved, the extension of the MARC trains into Columbia would form the centerpiece of the county administration's transportation program during the next two years, and would be followed by expansions of the county's ride-sharing program and bus routes, he said.