City's bumpy bus history leaves riders in the lurch

January 18, 2002|By James D. Dilts

IN RESPONSE to the opposition of residents, businesses and institutions in the Penn Station neighborhood who were concerned about pollution, traffic congestion and loitering, Mayor Martin O'Malley suddenly but wisely canceled plans last month to build a bus terminal there.

Back to the drawing board. The next bus station we build will be our fourth in about 15 years.

The reason has less to do with the complexities of municipal decision-making in Baltimore than with the changes in direction some years ago of a troubled bus company located elsewhere.

The story -- the Baltimore bus rider's lament -- began in 1986.

There were two bus stations then: the Greyhound Terminal at Howard and Centre streets, and the Trailways Terminal on West Fayette Street, near Howard.

Greyhound was very proud when it built its steel-frame-and-concrete bus station in 1941 in the streamlined Art Moderne style, complete with a racing Greyhound sign and a restaurant where you could get a decent meal even if you weren't taking the bus. It chose the site because it was close to downtown and convenient to stores, theaters and hotels.

The Trailways Terminal, in a nondescript building dating from perhaps the 1960s, was more centrally located but more confined.

In 1986, the Greyhound-Dial Corp., a Phoenix-based conglomerate with holdings in meat, food processing and consumer products businesses, decided to get rid of the buses. It was interested in diversification and acquisition; that meant it needed capital.

Greyhound had valuable downtown real estate and other holdings. The bus business, under pressure from airlines and trains, was hurting. The drivers were spending too much time on congested downtown streets (so went the corporate line) and, therefore, the terminals were to be moved to outlying areas closer to the interstates, thus freeing the downtown locations for sale.

In December 1986, Baltimore agreed to buy the former Greyhound Terminal on Howard Street for $1.25 million. The buses would move to the Baltimore Travel Plaza, to include a hotel, restaurant and gas station, at O'Donnell Street and I-95 in East Baltimore.

In March 1987, the Greyhound-Dial Corp. spun off the bus business for $350 million to an investor group headed by a former Trailways CEO; one of its members was Craig Lentzsch, current Greyhound CEO. In May 1987, the Baltimore Travel Plaza opened; confused bus riders shuttled between there and Howard Street. In July 1987, Greyhound Lines Inc., having decided to get back in the bus business, purchased Trailways and moved most of its Baltimore operation to Fayette Street. A richer Dial Corp. went its separate way.

The poor Baltimore bus rider is still trying to find his.

"We do have two bus locations now, and it is too difficult for our inner-city patrons to get to the Travel Plaza," said Lynne Brown, a representative of Dallas-based Greyhound. Half of the 250,000 annual passengers who start their trips at the downtown Baltimore terminal arrive by public transit, mostly bus.

None of the terminals has fared too well. The renovated Greyhound facility on Howard Street formerly housed government and arts agencies and is now the Maryland Historical Society's administration building. But it is a lonely outpost in a once lively neighborhood. Nearby Howard Street is a ghost town. The Fayette Street Terminal is a barren and desolate place, bereft of services. It is to be acquired for the west-side redevelopment plan -- no great loss.

The Travel Plaza, built with the help of government funding, was bankrupt five years after it opened and auctioned for about a quarter of its appraised value. The hotel, gas station and bus terminal, which at least has a food court, now operate under new owners.

Where to now?

The new bus terminal, to be built with public money, will cost $12 million to $15 million. "We do have criteria," said Greyhound's Ms. Brown. "We need facilities in a downtown location served by local mass transit and with convenient access to the interstate highway system."

One of the proposed Baltimore locations fits this description: close to light rail, subway and expressways, within walking distance of the train station and well-served by city buses. It's at the State Office Complex -- about seven blocks from the old Greyhound Terminal on Howard.

James D. Dilts, a Baltimore writer, is co-author with John Dorsey of A Guide to Baltimore Architecture (Tidewater Publishers, 1997).

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