MTA looking for a route to expansion Its problems mount as jobs, people shift to suburbs

Growth 'absolutely critical'

Boost in service to Towson area among proposals

February 11, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews and Liz Atwood | Robert Guy Matthews and Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The uproar over Mass Transit Administration plans to raise fares and eliminate bus routes next month highlights a growing problem in the Baltimore area: providing mass transportation as people and jobs move farther and farther from the city.

MTA officials face huge obstacles as they try to adapt. Fewer people are riding buses. Predicting where riders want to go and persuading suburbanites to use mass transit is hard.

The change has been remarkable. In 1970, more than half of the region's workers held jobs in Baltimore; by 1990, two-thirds held jobs in the suburbs.

As the work force grew from 733,000 to 1.2 million, daily ridership on mass transit shrank to 355,000, a third fewer than two decades ago.

"We make no bones about it, growing our market is absolutely critical," MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. said. "What we have to do is stop the bleeding, stabilize and then work to recover."

Scrambling for solutions, agency officials plan to cut or shorten underused bus routes in the city and the counties March 10, the same day basic bus fares rise from $1.25 to $1.35.

The MTA wants to keep city riders, its core market, and capture more suburban riders by extending light rail lines farther into Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and developing more park-and-ride stations.

MTA officials also want to attract the so-called reverse commuters, those who live in the city and work in the suburbs.

Mr. Agro thinks he has stopped passenger loss and is ready to launch projects to increase ridership.

One proposal is to increase service in the Towson area. With Towson State University, St. Joseph Medical Center and clusters of apartments in the area, ridership should grow, he said, though slowly at first.

"But we can't afford to roll the dice right now" on expansion plans unless they pay off fairly quickly, Mr. Agro said.

A bill before the General Assembly would give him more latitude by easing the requirement that the MTA recover 50 percent of its operating costs through fares.

Another problem the MTA faces is a drop in federal funding. "We're anticipating losing about $4.5 million in operating assistance," said Stephen J. Mangano, the MTA finance director. "The year before there was about $10 million in federal operating assistance."

The MTA operating budget is about $232 million. A combination of fare revenue and state and federal funds keeps the system running.

A number of big projects are moving forward despite the obstacles, including a $106 million extension of the light rail line to Hunt Valley, Penn Station and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

In addition, the MARC commuter rail line will be extended by a mile in Frederick County.

The MTA also hopes to lure riders by using transit stops as magnets for stores and services. The agency has won a federal grant to build a day care center for 100 children at Reisterstown Road Plaza and is considering a plan to put offices, stores and condominiums on a 37-acre parking lot at the Owings Mills Metro station.

Yet, even as the MTA attempts to expand the rail system, refine its bus routes and attract more riders, suburban businesses and employees say there are big gaps. Companies are stepping in with their own transportation service.

If the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn didn't provide a weekend van service for employees, Jeff Hart would have a nightmarish commute.

The laundry supervisor, who lives in Baltimore Highlands in southwestern Baltimore County, would have to get up at 5 a.m., catch the No. 28 bus downtown, transfer to the No. 30 bus that goes to Timonium and then take the No. 9 bus to the hotel. Time of arrival: 7:30 a.m.

"I did that for three years," Mr. Hart said.

Even during the week, Mr. Hart's ride to work isn't easy. He must take two buses and the light rail, spending more than an hour en route.

Mr. Hart says MTA's decision to issue $3, all-day passes will make his commute more convenient. And in the long run, he will be helped most by the extension of the light rail to Hunt Valley.

More and more suburban companies may be providing such van services.

Smelkinson-Sysco, a huge food distributor at the Maryland Wholesale Food Market complex in Jessup, is contemplating starting a van service to help fill the need for warehouse workers.

"We are constantly looking for workers," said Bill Loftin, a senior vice president.

The company, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has an especially difficult time recruiting entry-level workers for evening and overnight shifts, when MTA buses don't run.

That's why the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition is proposing a van service from the eastern part of the city down the U.S. 1 corridor in Howard County. The nonprofit group has applied for a $2.5 million federal grant to start the service.

The agency expects to carry 500 employees to entry-level jobs.

Other suburbanites don't seem to want any help from their employers or the MTA. They love their cars.

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