Buck Rogers buses

February 13, 2004

SOME PEOPLE own a Pinto but foolishly aspire to a Bentley. So they dress up the family sedan with all kinds of bells and whistles. It might have only four cylinders and it might backfire, but darn if it won't have a custom paint job, DVD and CD players, a couple of fancy floor mats and some chrome wheel covers.

The Maryland Transit Administration may soon turn Baltimore's bus system into something similar.

When they're performing at their peak, MTA buses work just fine, thank you. They can get people from one place to another. But this isn't the Cadillac of transit systems. Ridership is down. Routes have had to be trimmed. Less than two years ago, wheels were falling off buses.

So it's puzzling that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced this week a $50 million investment in gee-whiz technology that would add $30,000 to the cost of each bus, but have little impact on what's really needed - better service and more riders. The proposal features global positioning satellites that would track the bus fleet. People waiting at stops could be informed (thanks to electronic signs) how long they'd have to wait for the next bus.

Sounds great, right? The same technology might even be linked to an internal diagnostic system onboard each bus so that mechanics could spot problems early. NextBus Information Systems, a California-based contractor, has installed GPS-based tracking technology in a number of systems, including Howard County's transit service and the Loyola College campus shuttle.

Officials in Howard County and at Loyola say they've been generally satisfied with the results but caution that they've also seen the limits of what NextBus can do. It doesn't save money. It doesn't reduce manpower costs. And it doesn't attract new riders. In many cases, a wristwatch and a plain old printed schedule can accomplish as much for passengers. If a bus breaks down or is stuck in traffic, NextBus won't free it.

The chief benefit of all this technology? Monitoring drivers to see if they're on schedule. Perpetually tardy drivers can be disciplined. That's nice, but is it crucial?

If the state has an extra $50 million lying around in transportation funds, here's a modest suggestion: Hire more drivers and mechanics. Buy more buses. Create new routes in growth areas. Offer free fare days to attract new riders. In other words, invest in the boring nuts and bolts of mass transit, not in the stuff that makes you look cool.

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