Bus Route for Ransom?

November 10, 1993

"Get us 100 riders or we'll kill your bus route."

The state Mass Transit Administration insists that is not the message it is sending to patrons of the Route 210 express bus, which carries a largely white-collar clientele between Annapolis and Baltimore. The administration is, however, telling those passengers that unless they can help the state drum up another 100 regular riders for the line by next fall, it may have to discontinue the only true suburb-to-city mass transportation in central Anne Arundel County. (Light rail now serves the northern county and the Local 14 bus line is available to Baltimore -- if you don't mind a two-hour sightseeing tour of every muffler shop and burger joint in Glen Burnie.)

It's certainly a mixed message for the MTA to be sending, especially in light of the Clean Air Act and its disincentives for single-passenger commuting. Riding the 210 is the very market the transit people have been trying to reach: suburban professionals who are making an effort to leave their cars at home and ride the bus to work.

And the threat to this option isn't unique to the residents of Anne Arundel County. The Baltimore express bus routes that originate in Columbia, Harford and western Baltimore counties are all underused and, thus, endangered. The state requires that mass-transit routes recover half their cost at the fare box and the 210, for example, barely returns 20 percent.

To the credit of the MTA and its new administrator, John A. Agro Jr., the agency is trying to work with riders to explore better ways to market the 210 line -- too often a weakness of mass transit development. The MTA is revising routes to run earlier and later. It had given bus drivers the capability of freezing traffic signals by remote control to hasten the rush-hour bus trips. And, it is also sending information about the route to nearby communities.

It is counter-productive, though, for the agency to threaten to yank the lines that are the future of mass transit, according to a recent study by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council on long-range transportation needs. A billion-dollar magnetic levitation train may be the sexy project for the early 21st century, but, by and large, buses will have to carry the burden of city-to-suburb and suburb-to-suburb commuting.

The MTA is surely not to blame for the suburban sprawl of the last 40 years, but it now has the responsibility for serving it.

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