Fueling a mass transit debate


June 30, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER

If commuter buses are so threatening to a community's safety and serenity, why does Julia Walters of Kent Island miss hers so much?

Walters, who works downtown for the Maryland State Department of Education, wrote in response to a column that suggested that the Baltimore region - even transit-averse Carroll County - should take a serious look at expanding commuter bus routes with gasoline hovering at about $4 a gallon.

I don't know if I can write another letter or make another request as I have been doing so to the tune of deaf ears since the MTA and Dillon stopped the bus from Kent Island to Baltimore in 2003. You have been our only supporter as each time I write or ask about adding an express commuter bus back into the mix, MTA, Dillon, the county commissioners, and the governor, blow me off.

I can only tell you that I rode the bus every day from Kent Island to Baltimore. It was so enjoyable not to fight the traffic. I could work or read. I really don't want to add more cars to the roads with their pollution. It saved wear and tear on my car and we all know where the price of gas is and going up as we speak. I also felt safer on the bus. There are car accidents each day along with road rage. I pay high taxes and yet there is not a bus from the capital to the largest city in Maryland. All we get are buses to Washington. I took my current job because there was a bus. I will now probably leave it because I can't stand the cost or anxiety of commuting any longer.

First, neither Walters nor her fellow riders should blame Dillon's Bus Service, which was simply a contractor. Cutting off the Route 210 bus was a decision made by the state when gas was much cheaper.

The good news is that the Maryland Transit Administration is considering a resumption of express bus service from Kent Island to Annapolis to Baltimore. Unlike 2003, the decision will not be narrowly focused on how much money the route makes. (The old 210 had a healthy ridership, but it was heavily used by state employees whose rides were subsidized.)

One benefit to taxpayers from such a route - hard to account for but very much real - is that it can help retain experienced state employees such as Walters. Hang in there. A decision could come in the next year or so.

Chris Brown of Westminster writes in to say he's not opposed to mass transit, "but because it is so totally useless in meeting my transportation needs, as far as I'm concerned, the entire MTA system is little more than a colossal waste of money." His main concern is that "the MTA concentrates all of its efforts on getting passengers to and from downtown Baltimore, or from point to point within the city limits, with little thought for those who both live and work outside of the Beltway."

Brown is right on target in some respects. The MTA's route system is too city-centric. That's why this column has suggested commuter bus runs starting in the morning in Carroll and feeding in to the Owings Mills Metro Station, then continuing to such employment centers as Woodlawn, where Brown works, and BWI. Others could connect with the subway then branch off to the Lutherville light rail and Towson. Why send a bus all the way downtown when you've already made the connection to the subway?

With $4 gas, maybe the math still doesn't work for Brown and others in Carroll. But who's willing to bet we won't be seeing $5 gas?

Brown also passed along an observation from his wife: "She never thought that bringing mass transit to Carroll County was in any way related to racism or to the spread of crime, as was suggested by some of the responses to your column, or when you referred to fear of 'undesirables.' "

In the Browns' case, I'm sure that's true. But take a peek in my mailbag.

Lisa from Finksburg writes: "Once you bring in something like that, it is easy for undesirables to get on the bus and come to the county to go shopping and rip us off. Keep the buses away from our quiet area, we like it that way. I think most of us in Carroll County feel that way."

Jon from Owings Mills adds:

"You suspect there is a tinge of disguised racism in the Carroll County comments. Yes, I suspect you're right. But, hey, what's the [big deal]? Look what happened when Hunt Valley light rail began. Go back further and realize what happened when the subway first came out to a heretofore lovely, demographically challenged ... Owings Mills. ...

"What's to disguise, it's the freakin' truth. Any area served by more public transportation has necessarily seen a large jump in crime. ... It's not fair for you to impugn the county population for their feelings."

So let's give the last word to a Carroll resident.

Nicoletta Eckholm grew up in the Washington suburbs and recently moved to Hampstead, from where she commutes to Baltimore. She's wondering why there are none of the transit services she remembers from Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland.

"I'm so surprised at the lack of public and private bus service to Baltimore City," she writes. "I'm also surprised at people's attitudes in Carroll County (change seems so hard for them). ... What is wrong with these people. ... don't they see the potential for expansion?"

Beats me. Southern Maryland, Hagerstown, Kent Island - all conservative, semi-rural areas - can't get enough commuter buses. Maybe newcomers such as Eckholm can change the dynamic in Carroll. Surely someone up there wants to save money on gas.


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