DASH to work with no sweat

Downtown: A new shuttle service aims to save commuters money and aggravation.

March 21, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Erin Chance of Canton isn't betting on Inner Harbor traffic anymore. Like a growing number of workers, she's opting to DASH downtown.

Brightly colored new blue, green and yellow DASH buses -- an acronym for Downtown Area Shuttle -- whisked 139 riders to their destinations yesterday morning, two weeks and two days after an ambitious federally funded transportation experiment was launched.

"That represents about a 50 percent increase," said Patrick Coughlin of Yellow Bus, operations manager of the fledgling system. The goal is to ease commuting by letting people park at the Ravens stadium parking lot and delivering them near their employers' doors quickly -- all for $50 a month, a lot less than area parking rates, which hover around $200.

"Most people like to be at work by 9," Coughlin said, adding, "So we have to prove it to them, that it runs every five minutes. My mother always told me, word-of-mouth is the best advertising."

The eight DASH buses cost $225,000 each, largely paid for by a federal grant administered by the Maryland Department of Transportation. The funds target reducing parking and traffic problems and improving air quality, said Richard Scher, an MDOT spokesman.

In Baltimore, during a workday morning traffic crush, DASHers say it's easy to think of that as public money well-spent. Several riders said they were saving time and parking money. "I spent in a week what I [now] spend in a month," said Andrea T. Lang, looking up from her novel. She noted that her young son, whom she picks up from day care most days, is equally enthusiastic: "My son loves the high seats."

Officials with the nonprofit Downtown Partnership, which runs the DASH program, said they applied for the transportation funds to avoid adding another concrete parking behemoth.

Lisa Raimundo, the organization's vice president of economic development, said the genesis of the program came during a conversation with the state about 18 months ago. "Mass transit needs a subsidy, and the seeds of the shuttle have been around for some time," she said.

Maryland Stadium Authority also came to the table to arrange stadium lot logistics, she said. Minneapolis and Pittsburgh have similar systems, she said, but an unusual feature here is that a nonprofit group is taking the lead, not the city government or local transportation authority.

During the morning and evening rush, 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Coughlin said the promise is a five-minute wait, a concept drilled into the drivers of the fleet -- seven buses used every day with one spare -- to make a good first impression on the downtown public.

Already convinced is Chance, 25, a Legg Mason mutual fund employee. Door to door, she said, her new trip to work is 35 minutes. "It's clean, friendly, always on time," she said as the DASH headed toward her skyscraper at Pratt and Light streets.

The bus has 26 seats and room for 25 to stand. With the buses full, Coughlin calculates, the system could transport 600 people an hour.

But the 30-foot-long buses, with their plush cushioned seats and low-to-the-ground floors for easy access, haven't been full. The same make as the successful Hampden Shuttlebug, the DASH is expected to bring thousands of commuters and tourists aboard, but even optimists concede that could take time.

"Bus service takes a while to mature," said Simon Taylor, the Maryland Transit Administration official who oversees commuter bus lines for the state. "But there is a very substantial commitment to this concept, and word will spread."

Taylor said the "community-friendly" bus model is based on European buses, which tend to be lighter, smaller and easier to navigate through heavy traffic than typical American buses.

Key to the subscription program, Downtown Partnership officials said, is that people enroll through their employer, not as individuals. Those who don't need to park but wish to ride the system's loops -- which encompass Mount Vernon and Little Italy during nonpeak hours -- may do so for 50 cents. MTA pass holders and state employees ride free.

At Legg Mason, the human resources department considers it a big hit. "We have 50 spots and a waiting list, so we're happy," said Maura Fox, a company spokeswoman.

After the three-year, $5.9 million grant expires, officials hope DASH will be self-sustaining, though revenue projections aren't firm, said Marshall W. Snively, a Downtown Partnership official. Ten employers have registered, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., a law firm and an architectural firm.

John Baxter, who drove from his Catonsville home to the stadium lot, had jumped on the Legg Mason DASH list. "It's a win-win," he said, as he pondered what it takes to get commuters to change habits from private to public transportation.

"This seems to be the way to go with our [public] infrastructure ... if it's convenient, affordable and reliable," Baxter said.

Sightseer Dejuane Green, 17, boarded at Fayette and Howard streets because he was curious to see where the DASH would go. "It's all right," he said.

And where did he plan to get off the bus?

"Fayette and Howard."

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