Amid relief, transit troubles

Howard largely escapes bus-line cuts, but some still feel the pain


The areawide restructuring of Maryland Transit Administration bus routes that threatened three lines to Howard County was largely rescinded when the changes took effect last week, but that is small comfort to people like Vera Harris.

Although county transit advocates are relieved that Howard largely escaped the cuts, Harris, 57, is scrambling to find a new way back to her Northeast Baltimore home each day. Her afternoon bus from work at Regency Cleaners in Lotte Plaza - leaving Rogers Avenue and U.S. 40 at 4:10 p.m. - was one of two trips a day cut on the No. 150 express route she uses.

The change has affected Harris, a 17-year employee at the cleaners, and her employer, Nancy Puls, who said it is hard for suburban businesses to find reliable workers such as Harris.

"Public transportation should be there to serve the public. I just don't get the administration's view on this," Puls said.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, a former Howard delegate, said the changes were made to save money by cutting lightly used routes, while strengthening service on others.

"Unfortunately, we're dealing with 200,000 riders a day," he said. "I regret anyone inconvenienced."

In an appearance last week in the County Council chambers - part of an annual tour of Maryland counties to report on transportation projects - Flanagan said transit projects of all kinds are under increasing pressure from falling gasoline revenue as prices rise and drivers cut back, and from sharply escalating construction costs.

"What we want is high-quality transit, but we must make cost-effective decisions," he said. The original bus route restructuring would have saved about $5 million a year, but the changes were scaled back substantially after a public outcry.

Beth Kreider, director of operations, planning and scheduling for the MTA, said the agency cut the most lightly used trips to Howard County, but Harris pointed out that the latest morning bus delivers her to Ellicott City at 7 a.m. and the earliest afternoon bus back to Baltimore does not leave until 5:48 p.m. - two hours after her shift ends and covering nearly an 11-hour time span. Kreider said she did not know how much money the cut saved the state.

"Not everybody gets off at 5:30," Harris said. By spreading the morning and evening trips so far apart, the MTA has made it difficult to use the bus both ways, and the time change last weekend creates another problem if she waits to use the later bus, she said.

It gets dark earlier, and Harris said she is reluctant to walk along U.S. 40 after sunset. By taking the later bus, she said, "I won't be getting home until 7:30 or 8 p.m."

Roberta Jackson, 41, a West Baltimore resident who began working for Howard County government in September, has also been affected, she said.

Her husband drops her off at work about 7 each morning on his daily commute to Northern Virginia, she said. To return home, she used to walk the half-mile from the county government complex on Rogers Ave. to U.S. 40 to get the 4:10 p.m. bus. She would transfer to a No. 23, which let her off at Saratoga and Calhoun streets. But she sometimes missed that bus, and later switched to the 5:48 p.m. trip. Now she has shifted to a carpool arrangement with a co-worker.

Still, her ride is not available every day, and she worries about having to catch a bus as a backup.

"It's just the changes I have to make. There are a lot of riders who are being affected," she said, recounting conversations between passengers on the bus each day as the changes approached. The No. 23 route has also changed, dropping Jackson off farther from home, she said.

Richard Kirchner, president of Transportation Advocates, a private county group pushing for more public transit, said he is grateful that Flanagan did not eliminate the No. 150 line, and did not cut the No. 311 commuter bus or reduce service on the No. 320 route on U.S. 1 - the other proposed changes.

"We're very happy about it," Kirchner said. "We think that the outpouring of people - the riders themselves at the public hearings - gave the Department of Transportation pause about going ahead."

For riders such as Harris, Kirchner said, "We're very sorry. I just don't believe dropping two trips could be saving them much money."

Last week, Harris' co-worker, John D'Angelo, 23, waited an extra 45 minutes after his shift each day to give Harris a ride to Rolling Road in Catonsville, where she can catch another bus home, but he is not available every day, he said.

Puls said employers need access to Baltimore residents who need jobs.

"I thought the state was interested in helping provide transportation from the city to the county. Does Flanagan have a state car? Not all employers have unlimited [transportation] resources like the state has," she said.

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