For riders, bus route overhaul is painful

MTA officials schedule public hearings, brace for customer protests

June 09, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Transit Administration's M12 bus route meanders through Baltimore County's Green Spring Valley - stopping here and there to let off a maid or a nanny outside the sprawling home of her prosperous employer.

If beautiful scenery or friendly vibes were the standards for a bus route, the M12 would run forever. It's a bus where people take up collections when their fellow passengers have a death or wedding in their lives.

"You get to know everybody. It's a little like family," said longtime rider Carolyn Perry.

But the M12 is one of the biggest money-losers in the MTA system, so the agency is proposing to end the service Oct. 16 as part of the most comprehensive restructuring of MTA routes in at least three decades.

The overhaul would discontinue almost a dozen MTA lines, add service on well-traveled routes and affect virtually every community in metropolitan Baltimore.

The proposed changes will be the subject of six public hearings next week, starting with a noon-to-8 p.m. marathon Monday at War Memorial Plaza. Community activists and advocates for transit riders are preparing for stormy sessions.

Dubbed the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative, the plan is a priority of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. It represents an effort to streamline and simplify the system while bringing its route structure, which in many cases reflects the Baltimore economy of 1970, into the 21st century.

It is a huge undertaking, fraught with political peril and raising sensitive issues of race and class.

Some critics charge that the changes are driven by a desire on the part of a transit-hostile Republican administration to cut transit spending and shift money to road-building.

"This was a political choice the administration made. They thought too large a percentage of the Transportation Trust Fund was going to too small a segment - that most people are in cars on the roadways, and too small a fraction are using transit," said Ed Cohen, president of the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore.

But Flanagan is promising that the revised bus system will better serve 99 percent of the MTA's riders - particularly those on core routes in the city and inner suburbs.

Flanagan denied that the initiative is driven solely by a desire to improve the system's "farebox recovery" - the percentage of the system's costs that are paid by riders. Under state law, the system is required to maintain a farebox recovery rate of 40 percent.

"This represents an historic effort to improve public transit in the Baltimore metropolitan area," Flanagan said. "Governor Ehrlich believes that public transit should be run in a way that offers the best possible service to our customers."

Whether or not money is the driving force behind the changes, there is a hope on the part of state officials that some money can be freed up for other purposes. The governor's budget sets a target of $5 million, but MTA officials say that is a flexible number because the hearings could yield changes to the plan.

The MTA expects the initiative to yield dozens of improvements to the often-criticized system, such as:

More frequent service on "crosstown" routes, which don't go through downtown, such as the 13, 22, 33, 44 and 51.

Additional midday service to reflect rider demand on busy routes.

Better tie-ins with light rail and the Metro subway.

More realistic schedules, reflecting the traffic congestion of today compared with 30 years ago. The schedules would increase the rest time for drivers at the end of each route.

Improved service to such booming areas as Fells Point and Canton, which would get a transfer-free connection to Penn Station, Charles Village and Homeland.

A new, limited-stop No. 40 bus through downtown that would foreshadow part of the projected route of the east-west Red Line transit service expected to be established during the next decade.

Increased weekend service on routes serving West Baltimore, Essex, Cherry Hill, Towson, Halethorpe, Mount Washington, Bayview, Owings Mills and Curtis Bay, among others.

But the improvements Flanagan envisions require an extensive paring of service to more far-flung areas.

Among the places that would lose service are many industrial parks at the far ends of branch lines. Public transit to outside-the-Beltway suburbs such as Ellicott City, where the No. 150 bus boards an average of just 143 riders a day, would be written off as a failed experiment.

The shortening and discontinuation of routes would cut off some riders from their jobs. Many of them are African-Americans who live in Baltimore and don't own cars.

Some critics see the proposal in terms of race and class.

"The people who are doing it don't live in the inner city and don't depend on mass transit," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a West Baltimore Democrat.

Marriott sees the proposal as an effort to attract more affluent riders at the expense of her constituents.

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