Transit agency puts brakes on Ehrlich-era bus restructuring

Route changes had confused many riders

May 09, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Reporter

The new leadership of the Maryland Transit Administration is halting one of the signature transportation programs launched under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- a comprehensive route restructuring known as the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative.

MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld said Democrat Martin O'Malley plans to take a more incremental approach to route changes -- making limited changes three times a year rather than a sweeping series of changes at once.

The acknowledgement that the initiative had been scrapped came as Wiedefeld and his management team held a "round- table" for reporters on plans for the state's transit system.

The wide-ranging session was a departure from recent practice at the MTA. Under the Ehrlich administration, MTA administrators remained in the background while then-Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan acted as chief spokesman for the agency.

Wiedefeld, the onetime chief executive of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport who most recently headed the Baltimore office of an engineering firm, took over the top transit job March 1. He promised an increased emphasis on customer service, which provides rides to more than 300,000 Marylanders each weekday.

"If we don't do that well, it's difficult to do anything else," he said.

The MTA's relations with its customers underwent strains in 2005, when the agency implemented the first phase of its bus initiative -- widely known as GBBI (pronounced "Gibby"). While the initiative pared some little-used routes and added service to some lines, it also produced widespread disruption and confusion among riders.

When Ehrlich was defeated for re-election, incoming Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari asked Flanagan -- the initiative's top booster -- to delay a second phase of route changes scheduled for February so the new administration could study them. Flanagan agreed.

At yesterday's session, MTA officials said they had pulled the plug on the restructuring. "There's no more GBBI," said Henry M. Kay, deputy administrator for planning and engineering. "Where we went wrong was trying to compress too much change into too short an amount of time."

Most of the changes made in the first round of changes remain in effect, however. Kay said the agency would move forward June 10 with a pared-back series of changes on 19 bus lines that he characterized as "schedule-tweaking." He said more changes would follow in September and next February. (Information on bus route changes can be found at

Ed Cohen, president of the Transit Riders Action Council, said that while he liked some of the changes proposed for the second phase, he can understand the MTA's take-it-slow approach.

"I think it's a recognition that they were biting off more than they could chew before," he said.

Among other things, the MTA announced plans to move forward with a long-delayed plan to equip its buses and rail systems with a new fare collection system using "smart" cards that will be interchangeable with those used on Washington's Metro system.

Eric Christensen, the MTA's deputy administrator for finance, said the agency would begin putting in new fare collection devices late this month and complete the installation by Labor Day. The agency plans to conduct a test of the card technology late this fall and to roll out the system, which will let riders pay fares with an electronic card, in summer 2008.

Wiedefeld said the MTA has had preliminary discussions with Amtrak about increasing MARC train service on the Penn Line, which runs on the national passenger railroad's tracks, as the state prepares for an influx of workers as part of the Pentagon's base realignment process. He said "there's optimism" that MTA can come to an agreement with Amtrak.

MTA officials also said they plan to meet soon with CSX Corp., the freight railroad that owns MARC's Camden and Brunswick lines.

Wiedefeld said the Red Line, a proposed east-west transit line through Baltimore that is the MTA's current largest project in the region, is now in a "quiet period" as the agency works to determine the costs and benefits of various approaches. He said the MTA plans public workshops on the project this fall.

While O'Malley said during last year's campaign that he wanted to study heavy rail as a Red Line alternative, MTA officials said a conventional subway is not receiving as much attention as the two "official" alternatives -- a rapid bus system and light rail. Kay said the MTA still plans to evaluate a heavy rail option -- but not as intensively because of concerns it could not receive federal funding.

Cohen, the transit advocate, dismissed Kay's assurances as "worthless and meaningless."

"If you're not studying something seriously, you're not looking at it at all," Cohen said.

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