On July 13, one week after the Howard County Council passed a bill that would create nutritional standards for food and drinks sold in vending machines on county property, County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) announced his veto of the bill, which he termed an overreach of government.

Reaction came swiftly, not from the council, but from The Horizon Foundation, of Columbia, which gauged the situation dismal enough to warrant committing hard-won funds to conduct a hastily arranged poll, the results of which were announced … wait for it … in Baltimore.

In any case, Council Bill 17 originally passed with a vote of 4-1, with Greg Fox (R-Dist. 5) casting the dissenting vote.

The council’s final word comes too late in July to be included in this issue, but with the council requiring nothing more arduous than a two-thirds majority vote – essentially another 4-1 result – on July 31 to override the veto, it’s safe to say the only real surprise that could arise from the fallout would entail Fox casting his lot with the Democrats on an override vote, or The Horizon Foundation’s poll revealing a Libertarian sentiment fomenting among county residents.

But belaboring such a point would be wasteful.

‘Unnecessary Intrusion’

Explaining his veto during a press conference, Kittleman said the bill “is an ineffective and unnecessary intrusion on personal responsibility and freedom,” adding that he trusts county residents and employees to make their own decisions on what to eat and drink.

“Despite proponents’ assertions to the contrary, this bill will have no impact on reducing obesity and its related health problems for children or adults,” he said.

The vending machine bill, introduced by Councilman Calvin Ball (D-Dist. 2) in May, also mandates guidelines on packaged food and beverages served or sold as part of youth-oriented county government programs.

Kittleman questioned the logic of codifying nutritional standards that continually change.

“Nutritional preferences do not belong in the Howard County Code because these standards evolve over time,” he said. “As new research is conducted, what’s considered most healthy often changes. We shouldn’t be put in a position where we need to pass legislation every time the nutrition industry modifies its recommendations.”

Instead, Kittleman said he prefers an approach to combating obesity that focuses on education, outreach and community-based programs.

“[B]anning or limiting access to some foods at limited locations is not an effective strategy to reducing obesity,” he said. “I am committed to developing a comprehensive health and nutrition educational program for Howard County, encouraging lifestyle changes that are far more likely to produce results.”

Poll Results

The Horizon Foundation poll, conducted by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks from July 18–23, found that 69% of voters favor adding healthy food and drink options to vending machines on public property, while 29% were opposed.

“Support for this policy measure is robust across all political, racial and ethnic categories,” said Steve Raabe of OpinionWorks.

“The results … reflect what we’ve known for some time: Howard County residents support health and effective measures to promote it,” said Horizon Foundation President and CEO Nikki Highsmith Vernick. “Residents have been choosing healthier food and drink options for their home, and they clearly want those same options where they work and play, too.”

Asked whether the poll could have any follow-on influence on potential state legislation in the future, Highsmith Vernick acknowledged that the poll was specifically focused on Council Bill 17.

“In our opinion, it was important to get an independent assessment of where people in the county stood on this issue,” she said. “We sent a copy of the legislation to the polling firm, and they came up with the questions and scales that were used,” she said. “The reflection was that it is a reasonable bill with broad support.”

BRT Study

At a meeting of the Howard County Public Transportation Board in July, representatives from the county’s Office of Transportation presented their views on the feasibility of a future Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for the county.

“It’s enhanced bus service that delivers fast, comfortable and cost-effective services at Metro or Light Rail capacities,” said Chris Eatough, the county’s bike and pedestrian coordinator. “Basically, BRT is an attempt to avoid some of the pitfalls of traditional bus service, such as getting stuck in traffic.”

A BRT system would require dedicated lanes, or lanes that could be dedicated during peak usage hours, and high efficiency stations.

Eatough cited BRT’s growing popularity across North America, with approximately 30 similar systems already operating and another 20 or so in the design phase.

Done right, he said, a BRT system could alleviate congestion and provide faster, more reliable service, which could attract more ridership.

“Economic development is another potential benefit,” Eatough said. “There is the potential for businesses to locate near station areas and for these areas to become very attractive.”

According to a county press release, the county executive tasked the Public Transportation Board last month with evaluating the potential for BRT service along Route 29. The county’s Office of Transportation is managing the study, which also includes other potential routes.

Funded through the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board, the BRT study will evaluate potential opportunities for BRT in Howard County along Route 1, Route 32 and the CSX right-of-way in Columbia Gateway Business Park, in addition to Route 29.

County Lines

The potential of operating BRT along Route 29 is enhanced due to efforts by Montgomery County to develop BRT along the same corridor.

“Our neighbors to the south have already identified Route 29 as a primary candidate for a BRT system,” said Public Transportation Board Chair Ron Hartman. “Therefore, providing a connection through Howard County represents a logical and efficient next step.”

Transportation Planner David Cookson said the Office of Transportation plans to extend and expand the reach of the study project through the end of the year.

“The other part of this is also trying to bring in our partners in Anne Arundel County, Montgomery County and the state and get them involved in this part of the process,” he said.