Commuters slowly turn to transit

Alternative: Public transportation is seeing an uptick in riders, but some question whether the state can handle a big jump in commuting.

May 30, 2004|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Sometimes it takes a little jolt to change old habits. For nearly a decade, Randall Keyser drove downtown to work every weekday from his home in Columbia, and back again in the evening.

Then, about three weeks ago, as gasoline prices neared $2 a gallon, the 53-year-old associate professor decided he had had enough - enough of hassling with traffic, and enough of enriching the oil industry.

These mornings, Keyser walks about 1 1/2 miles from his home to the Harper's Choice Village Center. There, he boards a commuter bus that drops him off about 50 minutes later a block from his office at the University of Maryland Medical School.

"The ride in is probably 15 minutes longer on the bus," he explained. "But the tradeoff is I don't have to drive. I can watch the scenery and drink my coffee." And, he figures, he saves about a tank of gas a week.

Keyser has joined what is a trickle - for now, at least - of fed-up commuters trying to save on fuel costs by leaving the driving to someone else.

Whether that thin stream becomes a torrent may depend on where gas prices end up. But it also could hinge on whether the state's cash-strapped and disjointed transit system, which doesn't seem to suit many people's needs, can handle the demand without a major upgrade.

"You can't take transit when it's not there, no matter how much you want to," says Henry Kay, a former Maryland Transit Administration official who now works for the Greater Baltimore Committee. The business group recently declared better transit one of its economic development priorities for the region.

The leap in gas prices has come at an inopportune time for transit advocates hoping to lure converts: The state raised fares and cut some bus routes last year, and construction on the light rail system means many riders have to transfer to buses for part of the trip.

Nevertheless, state transit officials say they do see signs of an uptick this spring on some commuter rail and bus lines, though they don't have up-to-date figures on bus, light rail and subway ridership in the Baltimore-Washington area.

More than 27,000 passengers, on average, boarded MARC trains daily in March, a 2 percent increase in a single month in ridership on the commuter rail lines serving downtown Washington and Baltimore. The agency lacks any recent bus, light rail, or Metro subway ridership figures - a shortcoming it attributes to budget cuts and staff turnover.

While they can't quantify it, MTA officials say they sense increased interest in commuter buses ferrying suburban residents downtown - often aboard air-conditioned coaches with cushioned seats and bathrooms.

"Riders have been calling to say they are catching earlier or later buses than usual," said MTA spokeswoman Cheron Wicker, because the bus they normally ride is full.

The commuter buses carrying Harford County residents down Interstate 95 to Baltimore still have seats available on most runs, but ridership there is also creeping up, according to Ronald C. Dillon Jr., controller of Dillon Bus Lines.

The company provides commuter bus service to Baltimore and Washington under contract with the MTA. The number of passengers in April on the Harford County routes was nearly 5 percent higher than a year earlier, said Dillon, an Anne Arundel County councilman.

`Under tight budgets'

Despite the blip in ridership, the MTA has no immediate plans to add commuter bus runs or launch a marketing campaign aimed at capitalizing on the high price of gas.

"We're looking into that, but nothing has been decided," the MTA spokeswoman said of increasing commuter bus service. "We're working under tight budgets right now."

Indeed, to cut costs, the MTA raised basic bus fares last year from $1.35 to $1.60 and canceled some of the more lightly traveled routes and runs. Those moves saved the state money but also made the system less able to serve commuters' needs, say transit advocates.

Even before last year's fare increases and service cuts, bus ridership in Baltimore - the core of the metro area's transit network - had declined 10 percent since 1995, according to state figures.

While increased ridership on the MTA's MARC and commuter bus lines is heartening to transit advocates, they warn that the system may not be able to handle popularity without greater investment in equipment and infrastructure - and without more efficient operations.

"The MARC system is starting to implode," contends Eugene Peterson, head of the Transit Riders League, because the rail engines are aging and increasingly prone to breakdowns.

The MTA's spokeswoman said the state has efforts under way to upgrade the operation of its bus, light rail, subway and train lines, which together served an estimated 343,000 riders statewide in 2002 - the most recent figure the agency could supply.

Baltimore's light rail system should offer quicker and more reliable service from downtown to Hunt Valley once double-tracking work is finished in 2006, Wicker said.

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