MTA buses fail on-time tests

Survey of 9 routes finds only 41% run on schedule


Despite a recent overhaul of routes and schedules, Maryland Transit Administration buses show up on schedule less than half the time, according to a survey to be released today by a community watchdog organization.

The survey by the Citizens Planning and Housing Association found that only 41 percent of buses on nine routes in the Baltimore area arrived within the window used by the MTA to define a bus that is on schedule. A bus is not considered on time if it is more than 5 minutes late or more than one minute early.

About 29 percent of buses arrived late, while another 29 percent came early - potentially leaving on-time passengers waiting for the next scheduled bus, the planning group said.

The survey's lead author, CPHA regional policy director Dan Pontious, called the results "very disappointing."

"They show that there's still a very big problem with on-time performance," Pontious said. "It causes frustration for people who have to depend on bus service, and can drive people who have a car and have a choice away from the transit system and onto our clogged roads."

State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan acknowledged that the CPHA results are consistent with what he has heard from MTA riders since he first came into office in 2003. "They're upset because the buses are running late and the buses bunch up," he said.

Flanagan blamed the continuing problems on the General Assembly's decision in 2004 to cut a high-technology bus tracking system out of the 2005 MTA budget after the proposal was criticized in an editorial in The Sun.

The survey by CPHA, a 65-year-old civic advocacy group, comes after a sweeping series of route and schedule changes adopted by the Ehrlich administration in October and hailed by Flanagan as "improvements."

According to the survey, the changes - which the administration calls "the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative" - have not improved on-time performance and may have contributed to deteriorating service on some routes.

According to the survey:

Among the 29 percent of buses that were late, the average bus was 12 minutes behind schedule.

Buses that arrived early were off schedule by an average of three minutes. CPHA takes the position that an early bus is worse than a late bus because a rider who arrives at the scheduled time misses that bus and has to wait for the next one.

Of the nine bus routes surveyed, four had been changed by the bus initiative. Three of those - the No. 10, No. 23 and No. 20 - scored near the bottom in on-time performance with about two-thirds of buses off schedule.

The only bus routes showing an improvement over the results of a survey conducted by the MTA in 2004 were ones on which routes had not been changed.

The survey found the best on-time performance (59 percent) on the No. 15 line from Perry Hall to Security Square Mall via downtown and the worst (33 percent) on the No. 20 line from Dundalk to Security Square.

Two of the routes with the lowest scores, No. 10 (35 percent) and No. 23 (34 percent), went through two rounds of changes - Phase 1 of the bus initiative in October and a later revision of the bus schedules in February. CPHA staff and volunteers monitored the bus routes from February to May.

CPHA urged the MTA to make improvements, including closer supervision of route performance, a new review of bus route running times and a reconsideration of the value of consolidating lines into longer routes - as was done with the No. 10.

The report's release comes as the MTA is preparing for public hearings June 29 and June 30 on the second phase of the bus initiative. The MTA had intended to adopt changes to almost two dozen routes this week, but the General Assembly required the agency to put off the moves until it held hearings and prepared a report on the effects of the first round of changes.

Flanagan previously announced that the second-phase change will not take place until next year. He said the legislature's action had forced the MTA to delay some changes that would have improved on-time performance.

The transportation chief said many of the MTA's on-time problems will be alleviated when the agency finishes installing a system it calls NEXT, which uses global positioning satellite technology to track bus locations, allowing supervisors to keep better track of on-time performance.

"We will by the end of the year have a system in place that will get us to on-time performance that is among the best in the nation," he said.

Flanagan said the system would have been yielding improvements by now had the legislature not delayed the project in 2004. Legislative analysts recommended withholding the $24.2 million request until the MTA provided more details about the system.

Flanagan insisted the bus route restructuring, instead of contributing to the on-time problems, will be part of the solution. "The changes we made ... are the foundation upon which more reliable bus service can be built," he said.

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