The Office of the County Auditor in Howard County conducted a performance audit of vehicle maintenance for transit vehicles operated by the Regional Transportation Agency (RTA) and published their report in August of 2019.

This audit noted some significant findings…the most significant being Audit Finding 1 “Much of the County owned transit vehicle fleet is eligible for retirement and often unavailable”. The most significant statements in that finding (to me) were:

The RTA fleet is unreliable due to its use of buses eligible for retirement based on age or mileage, according to a consultant hired by the Office to develop the Transit Development Plan (TDP). According to RTA records, of the 59 fleet vehicles owned by the County as of January 31, 2018, the mileage for 21 exceeded the standard lifetime mileage specified by Maryland Transit Authority (MTA). We were advised that 4 of these 21 were subsequently removed from active service. 

Users and other stakeholders have voiced concerns over system reliability as the main factor in dissatisfaction with the RTA. Further, the consultant noted that on-time performance is poor due to several factors including reduced fleet availability. Our analysis of RTA documents confirmed significant issues with bus availability. For Fiscal Year 2018, 10 out of the 59 active Howard County owned transit vehicles were unavailable at least 26 percent of the days tested for the year.

You can read the full statement of findings and the response from Howard County government in the report (on listed page 4).

I reached out to Howard County Government to see if they would provide more information for this blog post so that I have the most up to date information for my readers…here is what they sent to me:

Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) and Howard County Bus Replacement Program Update

December 27, 2019

This is a follow-up to the Audit Response from the Howard County Office of Transportation that was submitted to County Auditor report on RTA fleet in response to an August 2019 Audit.  That audit was based on analysis completed in 2017 and reported that “Much of the County owned transit vehicle fleet is eligible for retirement and often not available.”

Background

As of December 31, 2017, a total of 21 vehicles in the RTA fleet had exceeded MTA’s life miles guidelines in Exhibit A of the Audit Report.  Fifteen (15) of the vehicles are on the fixed-routes service and six (6) are on the paratransit service.

December 2020 Update

Since 2017, a total of 19 fixed-route and paratransit vehicles have been received, scheduled to be ordered, or requested grant funding

  • The Office of Transportation (Office) and RTA have received 6 new fixed-route vehicles in the Fall of 2018; 2 new fixed-route vehicles in Fall of 2019; and secured funding for 3 replacement vehicles to be ordered in the Winter of 2019, with a planned delivery in the Summer of 2020.
  • For the paratransit fleet, the Office purchased 5 new paratransit vehicles that were delivered in August 2019.
  • The Office and the Office of Community Sustainability submitted a grant application in 2019 to replace 3 fixed-route vehicles that have exceeded their life miles as part of the statewide Volkswagen settlement.

Results

Since the replacement of some of the aging vehicles, the number of missed trips has dropped 55% from 2,400 trips FY2017 to 1,065 trips in FY2019. This represents less than 1% (0.7%) of our total trips.

Average vehicle age in 2019 is 4.6 years, down from 6 years in 2017.

Future Funding Considerations

By way of background, although we have been making significant progress on the reliability of our fleet in the past few years, we still have a backlog of about 6 vehicles that need to be replaced.

As indicated above, we are currently waiting to hear about the results of the VW grant application, and in March 2020 we will be applying for another State grant to fund at least another 3 vehicles.  If awarded, these vehicles would be replaced in early 2021 due to the amount of time lapsed between application, award and delivery.  In addition, Howard County is going to be approaching Prince George’s and Anne Arundel County to increase their contributions in their local funding requests for FY 2021.  This should further assist with the condition of the fleet.

If the RTA and Howard County were treated like Baltimore City and Baltimore County for their fixed route service “State of Good Repair (SOGR) Bus Investments” (provided directly by MTA), we would be getting 100% State support for our fixed route bus replacements.

Based on an analysis by the Howard County Office of Transportation (OoT), there is a gap between our annual need for bus replacements and the level of State grant funding we typically receive.  The current rate of State support for replacement vehicles is approximately two (2) per year.  That gap between total need (4.5 buses) and State funding is about 2.5 buses per year.  Buses cost is approximately $400,000. 

What is needed from the State to address the backlog in RTA bus replacement needs for the County

Between FY 2020 and FY 2024 full state funding for 100% of the RTA SOGR – bus replacement needs would average approximately $1.8 million per year as compared to the approximately $700,000 we have been receiving from the MTA over the past 2-3 years.

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I like the response from HoCoGov…here are some of my favorite items:

  • The number of missed trips has dropped 55%
  • Average vehicle age in 2019 is 4.6 years, down from 6 years in 2017

Here are items of concern going forward:

  • We still have a backlog of about 6 vehicles that need to be replaced
  • That gap between total need (4.5 buses) and State funding is about 2.5 buses per year
    • My comment – better stated, the gap is $1 million or more per year. That money has to come from some source in order to continue to provide a great transit system in our county.

Local transit has been an area of much discussion and promotion over the past year. Here is a post from County Executive Calvin Ball on December 8th:

Over the last year, we have invested in infrastructure that adds resources, improves communities, and increases accessibility through a truly multi-modal transportation system. Alleviating traffic is important for our quality of life.

Working together, we are making a difference in providing services for all our residents.

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I will be very interested in seeing the audit results in 2020. I would expect (given the findings in the report published this year) that another audit is coming in 2020.

I am curious…what are your thoughts or experiences with the local transit system in Howard County? Let me know in the comments.

Scott E

3 COMMENTS

  1. Calvin, and his direct reports, and members of the County Council, and their direct reports, need to ride the RTA for a consecutive 30 days to learn from the forgotten people of Howard County and to fully evaluate this system of poorly maintained, filthy vehicles with some questionable speeding and red light running drivers and absent RTA supervisors at unmaintained and smoky and vapy filled air at many inaccessible seemingly unmaintained bus stops.. How does The Howard County Government provide on-going monitoring and measuring of all aspects the RTA system including but not limited to the Transportation Administration, the Department of Community Resources and Services, the Health Department, the Police Department…etc?

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