Bus riders blame the light rail for cutbacks MTA defends it

December 02, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Has Baltimore's 7-month-old Central Light Rail Line put the squeeze on the city's more popular subway and bus systems?

Mass Transit Administration officials say that's not so, but many regular bus and Metro riders think otherwise. Some of them used that contention to lambaste MTA officials yesterday for the agency's plan to cut back on transit service and raise fares.

"When you spent so much money on light rail, you laid an egg," Ralph Sanders, a city resident, told representatives of the MTA yesterday. "You ought not make the rest of us suffer because of it."

The allegation of Mr. Sanders and others is that the combination of the light rail system's low ridership -- an average 7,000 trips per day -- and the projected $446.3 million construction cost have hurt the agency financially.

Last month, the MTA unveiled plans to eliminate or reduce service on 17 of Baltimore's 62 bus lines, to close Metro stations two hours earlier on weekdays, and to raise fares. The base transit fare would jump 15 cents to $1.25 from $1.10. The changes would take effect in January.

State officials claim the moves are necessary if they are to comply with a state law that requires the MTA to meet half its operating costs from the fare box. Costs have been rising, they contend, while both the bus and subway systems have been attracting fewer customers.

MTA buses account for about 275,000 passenger trips each day and Metro handles 45,000.

The proposed cutbacks represent the largest single reduction in service in MTA history while the proposed fare increase would be the second in only two years.

The plan has provoked riders, who spoke out yesterday at the first of five regional public hearings on the bus and Metro cutbacks. Among 60 people who gathered yesterday afternoon at a West Preston Street auditorium, nearly every affected bus line found a defender.

City school principals feared that students would have to walk too far to the nearest bus stop, and elderly bus riders worried that they would be trapped in their homes.

"I think it's pretty bad when you can't have friends visit you on Sundays and you can't go anywhere," Mary Nolan, 68, told the crowd. "Somebody gets sick, you have nowhere to go."

The decision to reduce service on the Number 66 bus line will force 300 students at Northern High School to abandon extracurricular activities, according to Douglas Norris, the school's principal.

Regular Metro riders complained that the 10 p.m. closing on weekdays would leave second shift workers stranded.

"You ought to walk in another person's shoes before you trip them as they go by," Joyce Camper, a city Police Department employee and regular Metro customer, told MTA planners.

But the biggest complaint of the day was that the bus and subway systems might somehow be getting shortchanged by light rail. MTA officials denied this was the case since light rail is operating under a two-year exemption to the state's 50 percent recovery law.

"Light rail is not part of the equation, period," MTA Administrator Ronald J. Hartman said afterward.

"We get this all the time," he said. "I can see their view -- a light rail system opens and months later we're cutting service -- but one thing has nothing to do with the other."

Mr. Hartman said he is also satisfied by light rail's performance, even though it has attracted less than a quarter of the daily ridership of 33,000 projected before the rail system opened last spring.

"The early days of the subway were like this," Mr. Hartman said. "I see the numbers going up each week. It's doing what we expected. It doesn't happen overnight."

He noted that some riders have also failed to differentiate between capital costs -- the money spent to build a system -- and the costs to operate mass transit. The state can't pay for an operating budget shortfall with money from the capital budget, he said.

MTA officials said they regret having to cut back on services but believe they have little choice. They said they chose to cut back on some of the MTA's least popular bus routes.

"Every bus line has sad stories. What can you do?" said Harvey Zelefsky, the MTA's manager of service planning. "You can't help but feel for these people."

The public hearings on the proposed service cutbacks continue today and tomorrow in Baltimore County. A series of six regional hearings on the proposed fare increase are scheduled for Dec. 14-18.

PUBLIC HEARINGS

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Service cutbacks

* Essex Community College, Business and Management Building, Room B-220, 7201 Rossville Blvd., Rosedale. 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. today.

* Baltimore County Council Chambers, Towson Courthouse, 400 Washington Ave. 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. tomorrow.

Sparrows Point High School Auditorium, 7400 North Point Road. 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. tomorrow. A special bus will leave Dundalk Avenue and Center Place at 6:15 p.m. to take people to hearing. It arrives at 6:35 p.m. and will take the reverse route when hearing ends at 8:30 p.m.

Fare increases

FTC * Monday, Dec. 14, Old Court House, 400 Washington Ave., 2nd floor, Towson, 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

* Tuesday, Dec. 15, War Memorial Building, 101 N. Gay St.,

Baltimore, 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

* Tuesday, Dec. 15, Robert Pascal Senior Citizen Center, 125 Dorsey Road, Glen Burnie, 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

* Thursday, Dec. 17, Bel Air Elementary School, Media Center, 30 E. Lee St., Bel Air, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

* Friday, Dec. 18, George Howard Bldg., Banneker Room, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City, 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

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