A new program, which relies on a network of volunteers, will begin providing door-to-door rides to Howard County residents 65 and older next Thursday. The program, known as Neighbor Ride, is the brainchild of a group of local officials and the nonprofit Transportation Advocates.

"If you are a volunteer driver, you will be using your personal vehicle and your personal insurance, just as if you were driving a neighbor to the grocery store," said Judy Pittman, chairwoman of the board for Neighbor Ride. More than 20 people already have volunteered to drive, she said.

People wishing to book a ride will need to call three days in advance. The group expects to provide service on evenings and weekends as well as weekdays. Riders will be charged a fee to cover expenses. For more information or to volunteer, call 410-884-RIDE (7433).

Conflict Over Crescent

It could be several months before the Howard County Planning Board makes a final decision on Rouse Co.'s proposal to construct a 1.2 million-square-foot commercial development on the Crescent property next to Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The board, which met for more than three hours last week, isn't expected to take up the case again until Dec. 16. It's also looking at dates in early January for another possible session.

If board members are still deliberating into next year, they may bump into the scheduled March hearing in the Rouse lawsuit challenging the county zoning board's rejection of a density change that would have allowed a housing development on the site.

The potential confluence of events was raised at last week's hearing by longtime Columbia activist Al Pivar, who questioned why the Planning Board was bothering to review the commercial plan since Rouse could win its lawsuit and revive its housing proposal.

The commercial proposal has drawn substantial opposition from Columbia residents. Nine of the planned community's village boards have written to the Planning Board protesting the plan, saying it would create too much traffic and should be put on hold until the community has an opportunity to develop its own master plan for downtown Columbia.

Traffic engineer Martin Wells, who conducted a traffic study for Rouse, said the commercial proposal, which includes offices and retail stores, would increase traffic at the intersection of Broken Land Parkway and Hickory Ridge Road by about 20 percent during the morning rush hour and 26 percent in the evening. He said Rouse's commercial plan, when coupled with other developments already approved for downtown Columbia by the county, would increase overall traffic in the area by 46 percent in the morning and 51 percent in the evening by 2007, the proposed date for opening of the commercial development.

Currently, there are 3,217 vehicles passing through the intersection in the morning and 4,646 during the afternoon rush, he said.

A Grand Gift for HCC

Blase Cooke has great luck and has won raffles about 10 times over the last 20 years. But his latest win at the Columbia Classic Grand Prix raffle in September was truly grand: a 2005 Mercedes-Benz. He had a choice, actually, of the ML350, a sport-utility vehicle, or a two-seater convertible.

Cooke talked it over with his wife, Dawn, and made a choice -- the one he always makes when he wins. He declined the prize.

Cooke's decision not to take ownership of the vehicle means the Howard Community College Educational Foundation, which sponsors the Grand Prix, will have an extra $40,000 to devote to student scholarships. The donation boosts the total raised this year at the college's biggest fundraising event to $150,000.

"They may not be driving a new Mercedes-Benz, but they have provided the equivalent of full associate's degrees for a dozen students," P. Michael Nagle, a Columbia lawyer and chairman of the Grand Prix, said of the Cookes.

Cooke, president and CEO of Harkins Builders Inc., a Marriottsville-based general contracting firm, recalled a Catonsville community fundraiser 20 years ago where he first won a few hundred dollars. On the spur of the moment, he declined to claim his award.

"I felt so good about that, it just stayed with me," he said.

Cooke, 57, considers himself a fortunate man even though he's battling cancer.

"Even when I'm having treatment, I can still send checks in," he said. Giving, he said, "has always seemed like the right thing to do."

Council Selection Expected

The county's nine-member Republican Central Committee was to meet last night to select a replacement for Howard County Council member Allan H. Kittleman, who resigned Oct. 21 to take his late father's senate seat in the Maryland General Assembly. Robert H. Kittleman, 78, a Republican state senator representing Howard and Montgomery counties, died of leukemia Sept. 11.

The District 5 council seat includes the western part of the county and parts of the southern area, as well as the western section of Ellicott City. GOP Chairman Howard M. Rensin said the seat is in the only council district that is majority Republican, and the party is optimistic about holding on to it in the 2006 election.

Those who have expressed interest in the job are Steven H. Adler, who ran for county executive in 2002; Patrick Dornan, former president of the Howard County Taxpayers Association; Charles Feaga, who served on the council from 1986 to 1998; Greg Fox, an energy products salesman and council candidate in 1998; and John W. Taylor, a Highland resident

The council is expected to confirm the central committee's recommendation when it meets on Monday.