Businesses, governments struggle to get workers to jobs in suburbs Efforts try to fill gaps in public transportation

August 04, 1998|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Over the past three years, half a dozen corporate, county and federally funded programs have sprung up to fill in transportation gaps that are keeping workers who live in Baltimore out of increasingly plentiful jobs in the suburbs.

Sarita Johnson of Patterson Park knows how hard it is to manage a "reverse commute" -- going from the city into the suburbs. Every morning for a year, she spent two hours taking three buses to get to a $6-an-hour job as a customer service representative in Towson.

Three months ago, when her company moved to Hunt Valley, three hours by bus and then several miles more by foot, she quit that job.

"I used to read about all those jobs in the suburbs in the newspaper," the 24-year-old said. "I used to think I have those skills, but there's no way I can get out there."

She and other inner-city residents who don't own cars have been further locked into the city by bus routes that rarely extend beyond the Beltway and train lines that dead-end in commuter parking lots.

Programs such as Anne Arundel's Wheels for Work are donating cars to potential workers, and federal commuting programs, such as East Baltimore's Bridges To Work, are picking up city dwellers in vans and driving them to jobs far outside the city limits.

In addition, the MTA, bowing to pressure from corporations and counties, is hoping to add lines and bus routes to Harford and Anne Arundel counties. Annapolis officials want to add a bus line to a park-and-ride lot that is the only local stop for out-of-city buses.

Suburban counties, fearing the potential loss of tax revenues and industry if labor shortages can't be righted, are getting into commuting. Last month Howard and Anne Arundel county officials met with state transportation officials to devise a plan that could include hiring drivers to take people to work.

For the first time in 30 years, as businesses began migrating to cheaper, spacious sites in the area's bedroom communities, manufacturers and managers need workers from the city. Unemployment in the suburbs has dipped to around 3 percent over the past year. While there are few people left for hire in the suburbs, unemployment in Baltimore is about 15 percent.

For many experts, there is an irony in business executives wooing the same workers they once left behind.

"It seems like there's always been this notion for poor people that was like, 'Give them a lousy bus system to go to their menial jobs in the cities,' " said Paul Foer, marketing specialist for the Annapolis Department of Transportation, which is trying to add the bus route. "When it came to getting across town or out of town, well, that's a different story."

Corporate interest

Without the recent corporate interest in providing transportation, most experts say, little would have been done.

The Light Rail system has made a few inroads into the counties, where residents fearful of "outsiders" have repeatedly resisted proposed new lines. When a developer began paving a parking lot for a new business park in Carroll County in May, residents flooded their local officials' phone lines with angry calls, convinced a park-and-ride lot or light rail station was coming to the county.

Many MARC lines lead to parking lots miles from the nearest bus route. Suburban residents can drive to train stops in Aberdeen, Odenton and Savage, ride to the city and land within walking distance of their jobs, train or bus stops. Their poorer counterparts in Baltimore can ride to those parking lots, but face long hikes to work places.

"An inner-city person should not have to have a car to have a job," said Scott Bogren, spokesman for the Washington-based Community Transportation Association, a private, nonprofit advocacy group. "Somewhere down the line, we Americans forgot that. We've taken for granted the automobile and in doing so, we've taken away the options for so many people."

Bridges To Work, a federally funded program in East Baltimore, provides rides to more than 165 people at all hours to jobs in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties, according to program director Linda Stewart-Byrd.

Frustration

Running these commuting programs is frustrating, said program deputy director Scot Spencer, who has watched East Baltimore deteriorate as its manufacturing base and industry fled.

Most companies have been lured into the great wide open

spaces by counties offering lucrative incentives such as low rents and tax breaks, and until recently, a big supply of workers.

Smelkinson SYSCO, a food service company, ran one of the largest distribution centers on Camden Street for 79 years, until 1974, when it moved to Jessup in Howard County, to a site with automatic sprinklers, parking lots and space to spread out.

For the first time since the move, the company can't find enough qualified workers with cars to fill its 840 positions, said Kathleen Clein, vice president of human resources, who has files on every commuting program, employment service and charitable worker training group she could find.

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