Hundreds of Harford County's mass transit riders say they are conserving energy and helping to preserve the environment without adding to congestion on Interstate 95. Riding the bus also saves them money on gas and parking in downtown Baltimore.
Now they are battling the Maryland Transit Administration's cost-savings proposals that would eliminate one of the four commuter bus lines from the county to Baltimore and cut back trips on others. A public hearing in Bel Air last week drew nearly 150 people. More than 40 of them argued that increased ridership alone is reason to keep the service.
"We have ridership here, and they want to cut it," said Maddy Thomann of Bel Air. "They should be adding lines, and even more people will use it. This is the only transportation many people have to their jobs. The cuts make no sense."
The audience included government and hospital employees, university students and disabled residents, a few of them veterans, for whom driving is not an option. Some said they bought homes near public transportation and many said they have become accustomed to the ease of a bus ride into the city. Lisa Calvert Chalk of Bel Air said MTA has taken a hatchet to its schedules when it should have used a scalpel.
"We have chosen safe, reliable transportation and you are asking us to trade that in," said Phyllis Wilcox, who commutes to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
With a show of hands, nearly all in the audience said they would be willing to pay higher fares to keep buses rolling, an option the governor opposes.
"I think a fare increase is reasonable but the elimination of an entire route, which consists of four or five daily round trips, or cutting back on daily runs would be detrimental to the Harford County commuters," said Marge Sears of Bel Air, who has taken the bus to her job at a Baltimore law firm for nearly 20 years.
MTA has not raised fares, which account for 40 percent of its operating costs, in five years. An increase would not generate sufficient income and would be unfair to riders not affected by service reductions, officials said.
If the 412 line from Forest Hill to Baltimore is discontinued, many at the hearing said there will be no stops at the University of Maryland or Veterans Administration hospitals.
"Keep this service," said Maxine Bowers of Forest Hill, who has been riding the 412 downtown for nearly five years. "You are serving working people every day, people who are paying taxes."
Ridership has increased steadily on the Harford lines, particularly in the past few years, including a nearly 30 percent jump this summer, said Reginald Durbin, a driver for Dillon Bus Service, MTA's local contractor. Steve Duker of Fallston called the four Harford lines "shining jewels in the system. You can set your watch by them."
MTA, which is funded through motor vehicle fees and gas taxes, is operating with declining revenues and rising costs. The agency could lose $2.5 billion in revenues over the next six years, officials said. It must trim its budget by eliminating bus and MARC train lines and decreasing the number of trips on other routes.
"It is the perfect storm that nobody foresaw," said John Hovatter, MTA's director of marketing and commuter service. "Operating costs are sky-high and revenues are just so low."
Raise fares or cut overlapping routes in the city, but leave lines that are working for Harford alone, speakers reiterated.
"I thought the idea was to work with the riders," Sears said.
Rafael Guroian, a member of the MARC riders advisory committee, said the cuts place an undue burden on those in the counties. He urged MTA officials to seek other sources of funding.
"Your budget depends on the gas tax and vehicle registration," he said. "The very things mass transit users are battling against are taking down our service."
Republican Del. Susan K. McComas, leader of Harford's legislative delegation, said she will work with MTA on a resolution.
"The governor has made the political decision to cancel the 412 instead of considering an increase in fare box recovery," McComas said. "Commuters have been encouraged by the state to use public transportation to help the environment, conserve resources, save money and alleviate congested highways. Now many are scrambling to find other sources of transportation in very difficult financial times. To cancel the 412 is not moving Maryland forward, and it hurts working families."
MTA officials are conducting 18 public hearings at locations in the metropolitan area to gather information from commuters. Hearings are set for 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Edgewood Recreation Center, 1980 Brookside Drive, Edgewood, and from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. the same day at Perryville High School, 1696 Perryville Road.
"This is the democratic process at work," Hovatter said. "Comments will be sorted and recorded, then discussed with the administration before making recommendations to the secretary of transportation."
County Councilman James V. McMahan, who serves the Bel Air area, said he has heard complaints from many constituents who "would be in dire straits, if they take public transit away.
"Ten years ago, MTA was clamoring for riders," McMahan said. "Now they want to take buses away. There is no logic to this, especially when there are more and more riders."
Councilman Dion Guthrie, who represents Edgewood, said he would remind MTA of the thousands of new residents relocating to Harford as a result of the expansion at Aberdeen Proving Ground, known as BRAC.
"Those are people used to public transportation," he said. "It's insane to cut back on trains and buses with BRAC coming."