Transportation chief revisits idea of `busways'


Transit alternative dates back to 1950s

April 05, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan recently revived a long-dormant term when he suggested "bus rapid transit" as a substitute for proposed area rail routes, especially the east-west segment of the Red Line.

He reasoned that using special transit buses, which have a greater passenger capacity than regular buses, will save money and be up and running sooner than light-rail lines can be constructed.

Stephen Kiehl, who covers transportation for The Sun, reported last month that the cost for Baltimore's regional rail plan is estimated to be $12 billion.

"That much money is hard to come by, especially as the number of cities seeking transit money multiplies every few years," wrote Kiehl. "This year, the Federal Transit Administration received applications for 121 projects. It recommended 26 of them to Congress for funding."

The term "busways" was coined in the 1950s by Henry A. Barnes, then Baltimore's traffic commissioner. He proposed a bus system that operated on an exclusive, dedicated right-of-way free of other motor traffic.

Buses would circulate through suburban neighborhoods picking up passengers at designated stops before whipping downtown at 60-plus mph.

Pittsburgh became a pioneering operator of busways, opening the $27 million, 4.5-mile South Busway in 1977 and the $113 million, 6.8-mile East Busway in 1983. The system, built on former Pennsylvania Railroad rights-of-way, carries some 54,000 riders a day.

In the early 1980s, it was suggested that a busway might help solve Baltimore's perpetual transit ills.

It was to run from Penn Station northward to Hunt Valley and would be built over the roadbed of the old Northern Central Railway.

The route for the proposed busway was later cut back to Bare Hills at the Baltimore City-County line, where work was slated to begin with the construction of a 1,000-car park-and-ride lot in 1985. It was to have opened by 1987.

While then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer was "impressed" after having visited the Pittsburgh system, transit critics back home in Baltimore were less than enthusiastic.

"The busway will offer neither the capacity nor the extent of service that rail transit would have provided, nor will it do much to revive the moribund Penn Station area, which a daily influx of rail commuters might have begun," James D. Dilts wrote in The Sun in 1983.

Residents along the busway route were outraged. They were fearful of added congestion, noise and pollution. It wasn't long before letters to the editor began piling up in The Sun's mailroom.

One resident was concerned about additional storm water pouring from the expanded concrete surface of the busway into the Jones Falls watershed.

Josephine Wolfkill, a Woodberry resident who had purchased her home before the Jones Falls Expressway was built, was distraught about the idea of an additional concrete conduit outside her window carrying roaring, smelly buses.

"It shatters our rest and our nerves. It also rearranges the pictures on the wall!" she wrote.

Members of Neighbors Against the Busway, carrying "Bust the Busway" balloons, demonstrated in Annapolis.

The project was scrapped in 1984 when Gov. Harry R. Hughes said the project was not cost-effective. He reallocated half of the $117 million for its construction to improve Baltimore-area bus service.

In 1987, Schaefer, Hughes' successor as governor, proposed construction of a light-rail line from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie, some of it actually over a portion of what had been the former setting of the busway clash. Full service began in 1992.

Given its history, one wonders if busways are the way to go. Studies have proven that commuters given the option always prefer the flanged wheel on the fixed rail over buses, no matter how big or comfortable.

Also, the same ills that trouble motorists also stalk buses: the varying weather conditions one finds in these parts and congestion on city streets.

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