Glendening transit plan is tonic for commuters

But rail, bus funding poses quandary for lawmakers on budget

`Jammed in like sardines'

March 09, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING - To wedge into a rail car teeming with humanity at a Montgomery County Metro stop is to understand why state lawmakers are in a delicate position as they determine how much to cut from Gov. Parris N. Glendening's six-year, $750 million mass transit improvement proposal.

Nothing captures legislators' attention like voter anger, and there is plenty of bottled-up rage in evidence among the 588,000 daily commuter-warriors who maneuver their way into Washington-area subways during rush hour in the nation's second-largest rail system (New York City's is first).

The Metro system's subway and bus clientele is growing much faster than projected - average weekday ridership is up about 17 percent from a year ago. That growth is a big reason why Glendening's proposal to add, among other things, 300 buses and 50 rail cars is a tonic for Metro travelers, even as it poses a quandary for the General Assembly, which is considering scaling the plan back because of its cost.

The overcrowding has a human toll that is difficult to measure. Charles Marcellus, station manager at Metro Center in downtown Washington, says the strain is evident in passengers' behavior. The longer they have to wait for a train, the more easily they are set off.

"The least little things will sometimes make people mad," Marcellus says.

He stands near the track and acts as a referee when passengers push one another or try to jump aboard a train too late. "Watch the doors, watch the doors!" he exhorts. But riders routinely ignore his command and jam umbrellas or even limbs between the doors to keep them open so they can climb aboard.

To commuters such as Philip Spellman of Germantown, mass transit is what Annapolis politicians refer to as a classic "quality of life" issue. The length and comfort - or discomfort - of their daily treks on Metro's overburdened Red Line can alter their moods and cut into time spent with friends and family if there are delays.

Spellman says his commutes increasingly have become more taxing.

"Competitive - that's a good word for it," says Spellman, smiling weakly. He drives 20 minutes each morning to the Shady Grove station, then rides the subway 50 minutes or so to his job as a recruiter for an information technology firm in Rosslyn, Va.

Spellman is among a growing number of Marylanders who tap into the Metro system from northern Montgomery County and other outlying areas, either by driving or by hopping on buses that feed into subway stations. Glendening's program would add $3.6 million for the county's "Ride-On" buses, more than doubling the funding since 1995.

Spellman optimistically brings a book onto the subway, but on some days the rail cars are too crowded for him to read. "Sometimes in the morning it's so packed that people are right in your face," he says.

He jokes that Metro riders employ a strategy - "Don't make eye contact" - to prevent niceties such as giving up a seat to a stranger.

State transportation officials detect a certain irony in Metro's crowding problem.

"In a way, it's a good thing because we want people to use mass transit," says Len N. Foxwell of the Maryland Mass Transit Administration. "But when the platforms and cars are crowded to the gills, that's a real problem. If they're jammed in like sardines and jostling for elbow room, that's a disincentive."

Glendening's initiative would cover much more than the Washington area. In Baltimore, the proposal would reduce bus fares by 25 cents to $1.10 and begin Sunday subway service from 6 a.m. to midnight. It would also open bus shuttle routes in some communities and create a "smart card" allowing riders to travel on any transit system in the state.

But interest in the governor's transit plans seems most intense in Montgomery County, which has seen rapid development in recent years and increasing traffic problems on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

"Transportation is the No. 1 priority in my area," says Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat. "We need new train cars. There is a real convergence of need here with Baltimore City."

In a poll conducted for The Sun before the 90-day legislative session opened in January, transportation was the fourth leading concern statewide, but it was the top issue for Montgomery County voters - ranking just ahead of education.

Montgomery Countians were more likely than people from most other places to have adjusted their work habits to meet transportation needs and to have considered moving out of the area because of traffic congestion, the poll showed

The county's representatives in Annapolis are trying to salvage as much of the governor's proposal as possible. Some elements could be lost as the House Appropriations Committee begins the process today of cutting Glendening's budget by about $185 million to meet a self-imposed spending limit.

The mass transit funding has been challenged on several fronts.

Some legislators object to Glendening's plan to boost the amount of the corporate income tax dedicated to transportation - a change that would pull $350 million from general revenue in the next six years.

Legislators are also concerned about the provision that would siphon about $43 million a year from toll revenues used to maintain bridges and tunnels.

"We want to make sure we don't leave holes in other places," says Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's Democrat and vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But other lawmakers believe the Assembly shouldn't resist the opportunity to create a new generation of mass transit - and score some political points with harried commuters back home.

"This is politically appealing, and it's physically needed," Franchot says.

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