Awareness the ticket for better bus use


March 05, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Welcome to the Maryland Transit Administration, Paul J. Wiedefeld. The MTA has gone a long time since it's had an administrator who everyone knew was in charge.

Of all the jobs in Maryland state government, you have taken on what may be the hardest and most thankless. But you've got a resume, including a successful run as head of BWI Marshall Airport, that inspires hope.

You're going to be faced with a lot of challenges: billion-dollar projects requiring gobs of new revenue, fixing basic bus service in Baltimore, keeping MARC on track.

But here's an issue that shouldn't cost a ton of money: improving MTA's connections with other transit systems. Take a little time to examine how MTA interacts with other bus operators. You won't know whether to laugh or cry.

First, some good news. There is a great way to get to Annapolis, via transit, that only a few bus fanatics know. You can use it yourself to get down to those interminable budget hearings in the General Assembly and get back the same evening. But the operators at the MTA's information center don't know about it, because their managers haven't told them.

It's the C-60 bus line, known as the North Star, which runs as an express between the Cromwell light rail station and Annapolis. It's not an MTA operation - it's operated by Annapolis Transit - but it connects neatly with your underused light rail system.

Using the combination, you should be able to hop on a train in downtown Baltimore about 11:45 a.m. and be on time for a 1 p.m. legislative hearing in Annapolis. (The free shuttle from the Naval Academy stadium to downtown completes the trip.)

Tell any wordy lawmakers you have to catch the 5:05 p.m. bus out of the Annapolis stadium. If all works as it should, the C-60 will get you to the 5:33 light rail at Cromwell and you'll be at Camden Yards - an easy walk to the office - at 5:56.

Total cost each way: $1.60 for light rail and $4 for the C-60, or $10.20 both ways. (There's a discount of $1 when transferring to the C-60 from MTA, but you have to ask for it.)

As you know, there are not a lot of people who commute between Baltimore and Annapolis by bus. The MTA has made sure of that by offering pitiful service between the state's largest city and its seat of government.

Since the previous regime killed off the MTA's Route 210 express to and from Annapolis, the MTA's only offering in that corridor is the No. 14 route. On some runs, that bus takes more than an hour to get from the State House complex to Cromwell, where the light rail carries passengers the rest of the way to Baltimore.

The No. 14-light rail combo is cheaper than the C-60, costing $3.50 both ways for a day pass. Still, having taken both, I'd recommend the C-60-light rail combination to anyone who can afford it.

According to a C-60 driver, there are only a handful of regular commuters using the route. Clearly, the word isn't getting out. (It might help if the MTA and Annapolis Transit could get together and post a sign at the Cromwell station.)

The C-60 is just one of several non-MTA routes that could open up new possibilities to MTA customers, if only they knew the connections.

The Mall in Columbia, for instance, is a major employment and residential center, as well as a transportation hub. But the MTA offers nothing to connect it with Baltimore on weekends and little at midday. But Howard Transit does, with a line to the BWI light rail station.

To get from downtown Baltimore to Arundel Mills - a growing employment center as well as a mall - on the MTA's No. 17 bus out of Patapsco light rail takes at least an hour and a quarter. But there are at least four faster alternatives - most unknown to the MTA information center - that can cut the travel time to as little as 34 minutes.

(MARC Camden Line 7:20 a.m. train to Dorsey, catching the 7:47 Howard Red Express to Arundel. Arrives at 7:54. Now that's connectivity. Other connections can be made by the Penn Line to the BWI MARC station or the light rail to BWI, either connecting to the Howard Transit Red Express, or Light Rail to Cromwell, linking with Connect-a-Ride Route J.)

To its credit, the Transit Riders Action Coalition is prodding the General Assembly to adopt connectivity among adjoining local systems as a basic principle of state transportation policy. The advocacy group is pointing to such anomalies as a Carroll County system that connects with no other transit systems. Then there's that issue of base realignment, bringing thousands of new jobs to an Aberdeen area with woeful connections to Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia.

The MTA could jump to the head of this parade. Here's a modest suggestion for you:

Convene a "Connectivity Summit" this summer, inviting every regional and local transit agency between Philadelphia and Northern Virginia along with transit activists, disability-rights groups and anyone who wants to participate. Hash out all the issues - from a common fare structure, to a universal "smart card" to a unified schedule database.

The long-neglected local transit systems are eager to join in and are looking forward to working with you.

"We're all hoping that with the new administration, things are going to get much better," said Carl Balser, chief of transportation planning for Howard Transit. "We have been fairly marginalized in the transit community for the last several years and we're hoping for a renaissance."

Here's a start: Give the phone operators schedules for the transit systems the MTA connects with. You can probably do that without raising fares.

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