Acting MTA chief: BaltimoreLink bus system launch went 'pretty smoothly'

Until the Maryland Transit Administration began planning its $135 million BaltimoreLink bus route overhaul that launched this week, state transit officials had neither ridden bus routes to create accurate schedules nor updated the routes after the installation of the light rail or metro subway systems decades ago, acting administrator Kevin B. Quinn Jr. said Wednesday.

The result? "Completely unrealistic schedules" that would require bus drivers to be "NASCAR drivers" to get to all their stops on time, and antiquated routes that didn't align with current job centers, entertainment and other transit, he said.

The new system, which debuted Sunday, is built around 12 color-coded high-frequency CityLink routes running through downtown every 10 to 15 minutes and less frequent LocalLink and Express BusLink routes branching off of them. After 19 months of planning, it was put to the test by riders for the first time this week, and was met by a mixed reaction as they adjusted to the new changes.

"We have to change the network if we want to fix it," Quinn said. "It went, overall, I think, pretty smoothly."

Quinn oversaw BaltimoreLink as the MTA's director of planning and programs until being appointed to head the agency two weeks ago following the abrupt departure of former CEO Paul Comfort. In replacing Comfort as CEO, he also replaced him last-minute as keynote speaker at the Greater Baltimore Committee's Newsmaker Breakfast on Wednesday morning. He began by addressing "the elephant in the room" for the business leaders across the region.

"I am not who you thought you'd see this morning," Quinn said, "and I am not who I thought you'd see this morning."

The Maryland Department of Transportation, which oversees the MTA, gave no reason for Comfort's departure, calling it a personnel matter, and Quinn did not elaborate Wednesday. Comfort's chief of staff, Jim Knighton, who also left the agency, had spent more than $65,000 on remodeling Comfort's office without seeking competitive bids as required by law, according to documents released earlier this month.

Quinn gave the group of business leaders in the GBC's downtown office building a run-down of the new system's features, including bus-only lanes and traffic-light sensors aboard buses that will lengthen green lights and shorten red ones to speed them through downtown congestion.

The Baltimore region's old bus system routed 800 buses per day along four major east-west downtown thoroughfares: Pratt, Lombard, Baltimore and Fayette streets, creating a "oatmeal, peanut butter slog" of traffic congestion, Quinn said. Under the new system, the CityLink buses are more spread out than their predecessors and "show-up-and-go" bus service is available to 30 percent more riders, especially critical in underprivileged parts of East and West Baltimore, he said.

"Forget about carrying schedules around," he said. "These buses show up every 10 minutes."

The MTA dispatched hundreds of route ambassadors across the bus network to help explain the new routes to confused riders. It put the phone number to its call center on the back of 5,000 new bus stop signs, and added extra staffing to handle the roughly 11,000 additional calls that came flooding in on Monday, Quinn said.

The new system still needs to be fine-tuned to address any problems that crop up, such as bus-bunching in the Orange CityLink line, Quinn said. "We're now at a point where we're making tweaks," he said.

Aaron Tomarchio, vice president of corporate affairs at Tradepoint Atlantic, which is developing the site of the old Sparrows Point steel mill near Dundalk on the city's southeast side, said BaltimoreLink was "very encouraging to see." Tradepoint hopes to add 10,000 new jobs there in the next few years.

While the No. 10 line down Dundalk Avenue was nixed in the overhaul because ridership dropped with the closing of the mill, the MTA has been active in planning transit hubs at Tradepoint and has requested information from FedEx, Under Armour and other prospective tenants to ensure upcoming routes will go to their workers' neighborhoods and run on shift times, Tomarchio said.

Quinn said he has engaged in similar discussions with Sagamore Development officials about transit for the planned $5.5 billion waterfront development in Port Covington.

"As a developer of a site looking to attract employers, I'm very excited about what's going on with BaltimoreLink," Tomarchio said. "It's exciting for the region."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

@cmcampbell6

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