Getting the Red Out ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

May 20, 1993

The world is full of great ideas. And the federal government i the rich uncle who bankrolls the testing of many of them.

Among the latest is a $155,000 experiment, which is slated to start in two weeks. Financed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, it will enable drivers of the Mass Transit Admnistration's express bus between Annapolis and Baltimore -- the 210 Flyer" -- to override 14 traffic signals on their route.

This is how the system is to work: As a bus approaches an intersection, it flashes an electronic signal to a computer controlling the traffic signal. If the light is green, the computer will hold it for the bus to pass. If the light is red, traffic is stopped in all directions. After the bus sneaks through the intersection, using a shoulder or right-turn lane, the computer reverts to a normal cycle.

The system is touted as being able to shave off a fifth of the now 52-minute, bi-city bus trip. Says James F. Buckley, an MTA official: "That 10 minutes could mean an extra slice of toast or getting to work early enough to screen your phone calls."

For bus travelers, this must seem a wonderful idea, but we remain a little skeptical. We are willing to bet that once motorists catch up with the idea of buses freezing traffic signals, the anarchy of rush-hour traffic on Ritchie Highway will only increase. Motorists have already become disturbingly defiant of red lights.

And we have nothing against better breakfasts or getting to work early, as the MTA spokesman suggests, but frankly, neither of those is likely to happen. Human nature being what it is, people are going to oversleep, rush to the bus and be in a nasty mood, regardless of space-age technology. Meanwhile, all those motorists rushing to work are going to be in mean spirits because traffic lights are frozen to allow buses through. They'll count the number of passengers, write their elected politicians and complain about excessive funding for mass transit.

We will continue to sing the glories of mass transit: If people are not wooed to its various modes, the Baltimore region is going to face ever-increasing traffic congestion and air quality problems. But truth be told, the futuristic traffic signal zappers are likely to do little to address the main dilemma that faces mass transit -- how to persuade more people to take the bus or light rail.

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