Without job training or a car, Vonzella Riggs struggled for two years to find a stable job in East Baltimore, where she lives.
"I could never look for work in the counties, because I didn't have any way of getting there," she said.
A report released today says thousands in Baltimore share a similar unemployment trap.
More than a third of all entry-level jobs in the Baltimore region can't be reached by public transportation, a daunting hurdle for people trying to move off welfare and into the work force, says the study by the Citizens Planning and Housing Association.
FOR THE RECORD - In an article in yesterday's editions of The Sun, the amount of government funding recently granted to the Bridges to Work project was incorrectly reported. The program, which transports inner-city residents to jobs in the suburbs, will receive $150,000, contingent on raising matching funds from private sources. The Sun regrets the error.
Those working atypical shifts who can get to work by public transportation often have problems returning home because there might be no late bus or train.
"Since 1996, we've told people welfare is going to end as we know it, and people are going to go to work. The problem is they can't get there," said Ralph Moore, a CPHA board member. "This is key to the success of welfare-to-work."
Virtually all of Baltimore's 35,000 adult welfare recipients live within walking distance of a bus or train line and could use transit, if only those lines went far enough or connected better to county transit systems, the report said.
Several nonprofit programs have tried to address the problem. Bridges to Work, which provides van service from Baltimore to jobs in the suburbs, has helped more than 400 people find employment.
"Even if they can get close to a job by transit, sometimes it's another four to five miles to get to the work site," said George Beamon, the program's transportation supervisor. "When we started this project, thousands of people applied."
Riggs, 42, was among the lucky few who got into the program, and since February has worked full-time at Carvel Corp. in Jessup, making ice cream cakes. A Bridges to Work van transports her round trip for $24 a week. Her job pays $7.10 an hour.
"Life's pretty good. It's been steady," she said. "Now I have a little extra to be able to open a checking account or buy a blouse or a pair of tennis shoes."
While commending such programs, the report says they do not offer long-term solutions. When subsidies fail, the program can die or become too expensive for riders.
It criticized transportation and human service agencies for moving too slowly to build better transportation, while acting rapidly to get people off welfare. And it suggests that regional planning that includes the city, counties and state is the only approach that will work.
The study, by the Jacob France Center of the University of Baltimore, recommends as short-term strategies:
Create a transportation management association, using the BWI Business Partnership as a model. The group, which would have offices in three high-growth employment centers, would link employers with transportation providers and job placement centers. It could coordinate reverse commute and carpool programs.
Aggressively market tax credits for employers who help pay for their workers' transit costs.
Train social services caseworkers about transit programs for their clients.
Repeal a mandate that the Mass Transit Administration recover 50 percent of its operating costs from rider fares. For several years, the MTA has been unable to meet that requirement, which transit supporters call unrealistic. To compensate, the agency has been forced to reduce services, mostly on bus lines.
Changing or eliminating the requirement is under review by the governor, MTA officials said.
"I think there are probably some very good ideas there," said Henry Kay, MTA's director of planning and programming. Some suggestions expand on ideas in the works, he said. The state recently announced another $4 million for Bridges to Work.
"We're in a stage where we're trying to find out what kinds of programs make a difference. If we can find programs that are really effective that people respond to and they help them, then we can talk about more significant dollars," he said.