Planned bus cuts shock riders

Without service, some say, they would be forced to quit their jobs

November 23, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Commuter bus riders in Columbia say they feel as if they have been sucker-punched.

Initially heartened by an O'Malley administration that promotes mass transit, many who spoke at a public hearing last week say they were blindsided by the state's plan to eliminate service to Baltimore and trim other routes in Howard County, starting Jan. 12.

Ridership has spiked on the imperiled Routes 310 and 311, and commuters say they feel that by using mass transit, they are doing exactly what Gov. Martin O'Malley has urged to help the environment, reduce congestion and save gas. Others say they have no alternatives and could be forced to leave jobs or drop out of classes at Howard Community College.

"I feel that somebody took the map of Howard County and put Wite-Out over Columbia, as if we don't exist," Arlysse Furlow of Columbia said during a Mass Transit Administration hearing Tuesday. "We vote. We really vote."

About 200 people packed Owen Brown Interfaith Center.

"If we can have gambling, why not a transit system?" Regina Bellina of Hanover asked examiner Simon Taylor.

County transportation planners say that up to 600 residents could lose bus service if the reductions go through. Because of lower gas tax and vehicle titling revenues, the MTA is proposing eliminating the two routes that connect Baltimore and Columbia, and the 320 route that serves the U.S. 1 corridor to Laurel. Other cuts would affect MARC train service and eliminate seven trips on bus route 929 and one trip on route 995 to Washington. No service would be offered on holidays, including the days after Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The only remaining bus to Baltimore would leave from Long Gate Shopping Center in Ellicott City, and commuters said those vehicles are already nearly full.

Route 310 has an average of 235 passengers a day, a nearly 54 percent increase since last year. Route 311 has had a 42 percent increase to 219 passengers a day, according to state figures.

Most speakers said they would voluntarily pay higher fares, though an MTA handout said that option was rejected because of the national economic woes. Fares now cover only 40 percent of the cost of the service.

County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, suggested "looking at an increase in the gas tax," which has not been raised in 15 years, as a way of bolstering faltering state revenue dedicated to transportation. She said her fellow Democratic elected officials urged her not to bring that up.

Three members of the House of Delegates, two state senators from Howard and another council member came to the hearing to express strong opposition to the proposed service cuts. County Executive Ken Ulman appeared later to reinforce the message.

Ulman and others noted that the county acted quickly six months ago after the summer gas price spike, adding 30 parking places at the crowded Snowden River Parkway park-and-ride lot at Route 175, only to be faced with losing service.

"I thought it was a great example of government doing what it should be doing," Ulman said. "This really struck me very hard."

Del. Frank S. Turner said he would play "bad cop" to Ulman's "good cop," by subtly threatening the MTA and O'Malley.

"Our delegation has a lot of members on appropriation committees and in leadership roles," he said. "There is another way."

Some of the strongest appeals voiced Tuesday came from riders who said they have no options.

Mona G. Tsoukleris of Clarksville, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore, said she has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that prevents her from driving.

"I first reacted to this with shock, then with anger, and then disbelief and fear," she said, her voice quavering. "I'm very emotional about this."

Tsoukleris said she works up to 70 hours a week and has no other way to get to her job.

"I'm looking at forced retirement in January," she said. "I'm begging, let me keep working."

Others said they work at Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore, the Veterans Administration downtown and other places where parking a car is expensive and difficult.

John Hill said he moved from Columbia to Washington two years ago to care for his elderly father and rides to Columbia daily for work. He said he would have to quit his job if routes are cut as planned on several Washington runs.

Jean Ryan of Silver Spring said she rides to Baltimore's VA hospital. She said she has lived in three other countries that have superb transit systems and hoped things were beginning to change in the United States.

"Don't cut back. Add," she said. "We need to figure out a new way to fund the MTA."

Bev Thomas suggested that Johns Hopkins might help subsidize the bus from Columbia, and others thought that private firms might step in if the state bows out.

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