Riders enjoy fare-free day

Transit: In a bid to encourage the use of mass transportation, MTA treats passengers to a day of free rides.

September 13, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Yesterday was free ride day courtesy of the Mass Transit Administration, intended as a light-hearted campaign to encourage mass transit - and get people to leave their cars at home - by offering unlimited free passage on all MTA buses, Metro, light rail and MARC trains.

But for many of the thousands who took advantage of that offer, it eased the way through a sunny day darkened by grief over Tuesday's terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"It really came at a good time because of what happened yesterday," said Darla Aye of Catonsville, an adult day care worker, as she headed toward City Hall on the No. 2 MTA bus yesterday morning. "You get around to see your friends and relatives so you can connect with them, tell them you love them, just to get some type of closure."

When she learned the rides were free, she decided to add a trip to see her mother. In all, she estimated, she had saved $9 in fares.

Her bus driver, Delores Dilworth, smiled broadly at each new passenger who approached her handwritten "Free Today" sign.

"I wish it was free every day," said Dilworth.

The first free-ride day came during national "Try Transit" week and was meant to illustrate the state's commitment to mass transit as a component of its Smart Growth philosophy.

Some transportation experts contend that encouraging mass transit helps the environment and the economy.

"We wanted it to be more festive and positive. The reason may get a little lost," acknowledged MTA spokesman Larry Jones.

Nonetheless, he said, "The entire system is working very smoothly, despite what's going on."

Average daily ridership on all MTA vehicles is 355,000, most of them Baltimore city and county bus riders. While yesterday's ridership estimates were not immediately available, Jones said MTA officials were optimistic that it would reach or pass 400,000.

"I thought it was very nice of the city," said Georgette Preston, a visiting New Yorker riding the light rail from Pennsylvania Station to the downtown Convention Center with her husband.

Both of them said they had thought the free rides were a courtesy extended by the city in the wake of Tuesday's tragedy.

The free ride offer also got an enthusiastic reception from light rail passenger Henri Benisty, a French physicist attending a biochemical screening conference at Baltimore Convention Center.

"Americans discover the train!" said Benisty.

Accustomed to the massive Paris metro system, he took full advantage of yesterday's service, riding the first MARC train at 5:15 a.m. to Washington to see if he could fly home on an Air France flight yesterday. He found no Air France planes on the ground in the United States, so he took MARC back to Baltimore.

The point of the exercise was clear to Penny Hopkins, a former MTA employee, who took the light rail to and from a doctor's appointment in the city.

"It's good to observe how many people ride, what percentage of the public comes out," she said.

A Cherry Hill mother, Valerie Smothers, 28, said she knew of the program in advance and seized the chance to head downtown with her 7-year-old daughter, Alexus.

"I got my nails done and some children's clothes," she said. If free rides were instituted regularly, she said, "I'd be out more often."

Yvonne Mathews, a former co-chair of the Transit Riders League, said her impression was that fellow commuters were pleased by the event. "It may pick up people's spirits."

But a collective sense of cloudy aftershock traveled with many.

Said a somber Thomas L. Little, Jr., on a light rail train heading in the direction of a deserted BWI Airport: "A lot of people are not in the mood for conversation."

Sun staff writer Gary Witherspoon contributed to this article.

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