Commuters and county leaders called this week for the state to reconsider a proposal to cut service on three Howard bus lines, saying it undermines efforts to improve local public transportation.

As part of a regionwide overhaul, the Maryland Transit Administration proposed this month to eliminate Howard County bus routes 320, 150 and 311, key commuter routes between the county and Baltimore. The cuts drew criticism from politicians, business and homeowners groups, and commuters, who told MTA officials in public hearings Monday and Tuesday that the cuts would harm the county's ability to attract workers from Baltimore and that they would increase traffic and dampen economic development.

"We've been trying to build our local bus system, and [the three routes] are one of the underpinnings," said Carl Balser, Howard County's chief of transportation planning. "This really cuts our legs off."

The MTA, however, says the initiative represents the first overhaul of its bus system since 1971 and is designed to increase efficiency, save money and refocus service on routes, primarily toward Washington, that are more in demand.

Under the proposed changes, the 311 commuter line would be discontinued. Service between Columbia and Baltimore would be replaced by the route 310 bus, but with fewer trips in both directions and fewer bus stops, with the ones at Broken Land Park and Ride and Columbia state office center being closed. On the commuter 320 line, one morning southbound trip and one afternoon northbound trip would be discontinued, along with all service south of Patuxent Range Road to Laurel.

Further, the state proposes to end service on the local 150 line, replacing service between downtown Baltimore and Rolling Road with the local 20 line. According to the MTA Web site, service would be available between Security Square Mall in Baltimore County and downtown Baltimore, with limited stops along Edmondson Avenue.

"This is a question of reallocating resources to where the demand is," Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said this week. "There is very, very heavy commuter demand to Washington, and the commuter demand to Baltimore is very, very weak." Flanagan said buses on the routes targeted by the proposal frequently travel half-empty, with as few as 15 people on buses with a capacity of up to 55. By contrast, he said, "people are standing" on MARC trains and commuter buses to the District.

Should the state decide to implement the proposal, changes to commuter bus routes, including routes 320 and 311, would take effect Aug. 1. Changes to local bus routes, including the 150, would come into force Oct. 16.

Balser said county officials learned of the plan about two weeks ago during a meeting when the MTA discussed revamping its core service in the Baltimore region, a program known as the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative, or GBBI. The cuts affecting Howard, Balser said, were mentioned "as a kind of afterthought. . . . We thought that if we have difficulty finding out about what was happening . . . the public would have difficulty finding out as well."

About 50 people attended hearings Monday in Columbia and Tuesday in Jessup to protest the plans. Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, told MTA representatives at Tuesday's hearing that "the more you cut service to be more efficient and reduce costs, the more ridership is discouraged . . . then you look and say, 'These routes are not warranted.' "

The cuts, Mugane said, "have a disproportionate impact on two places Howard County has tried to revitalize: Route 1 and Route 40. These are folks that may not have cars."

Maureen Hendler of Columbia, who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, said the cuts would increase her travel time to Baltimore by two hours. "They want people to be self-reliant," she said before the hearing. "But this would limit where I can go and what services I can use."

The MTA emphasized that no changes would take place until after public hearings were completed.

Although public hearings have ended, residents can send comments by e-mail to the state by tomorrow at