Some bumps in the road for bus riders as BaltimoreLink hits city streets

BaltimoreLink, the Maryland Transit Administration's $135 million redesign of the region's bus system, received mixed reviews on its first weekday commute Monday.

Some people balked at the confusing changes, while others welcomed them. Everyone enjoyed the free rides being offered for the system's first two weeks.

The MTA even figured out a compromise to get Johns Hopkins employees to and from Green Spring Station, a route that was being eliminated, though it was not without its first-day hiccups.

BaltimoreLink is based around a dozen color-coded, high-frequency CityLink routes running every 10 minutes through downtown Baltimore, connected to less frequent LocalLink and weekday ExpressLink commuter buses.

The overhaul, the first re-routing of the system in decades, is designed to modernize routes and connect buses to where people go, whether it's jobs, entertainment or other transit. In addition to redesigning the routes, wrapping the buses in the Maryland flag colors and unveiling 5,000 new bus stop signs, the MTA added bus-only lanes and traffic-light sensors aboard buses to shorten red lights and extend green ones to get the buses more quickly through traffic congestion.

Across the region, riders who hadn't seen the route changes in advance asked bus drivers and each other which route was which and how to get to their destinations. At the Mondawmin station, MTA officials set up a tent and provided advice and pamphlets to riders, and hundreds of MTA "route ambassadors" were dispatched to bus stops around the region.

Fare boxes inside the buses were covered with black BaltimoreLink-branded canvas bags that read "This ride's on us," advertising the two weeks of free service to allow riders to acclimate themselves to the system and recruit new riders to try riding the bus.

But no one told bus driver Ray Hall about a last-minute compromise to extend LocalLink 34 north to Green Spring three times in the morning and afternoon in place of the canceled No. 60 bus route.

"I thought everything going to be okay today," said Lisa Rubeling, a legal assistant in an office near Green Spring Station who was surprised when Hall started to turn the bus back south on Falls Road just north of Lake Avenue.

Riders stopped Hall and compared their schedules with his to figure out where the bus should go. After 10 minutes or so, he drove them up Falls Road to their destination before resuming the normal route.

"MTA has their hands full," Hall said. "People are trying to get to work, and they're trying to adjust. These are some big adjustments. At some point, we have to show people we're willing to make it work."

Kevin B. Quinn Jr., the MTA's acting CEO, who was helping riders find their buses at the West Baltimore MARC station Monday morning, said he was proud of the way Hall had handled the Green Spring Station mix-up, one of several on-the-fly adjustments his agency must be willing to make to successfully roll out such a massive overhaul of the system.

"It sounds like one of our operators was kind and did what they could to get that person to their destination," he said.

To prepare for her commute from her home on Ingleside Avenue to her job downtown as a hotel room inspector, Kim Costello, 60, studied the route map. She noticed an improvement on her first day.

"Usually the bus runs every hour," she said. "Now it runs every 30 minutes."

The added transfer at the West Baltimore MARC station wasn't inconvenient for her, she said, because one of three high-frequency buses into downtown was already there.

"What's the big deal? The bus is going to be right there," she said. "People just don't like change. The MTA system was broken. You used to have to wait for the 20 for an hour and a half. When they learn it, they'll realize it's good."

Beverly Paschall, however, wasn't impressed. She gave herself an hour to get to work Monday morning and barely made it in time.

Paschall, 59, of Woodlawn caught the new LocalLink 78 to the West Baltimore MARC station, where she transferred to the high-frequency CityLink Orange route, en route to her job as a medical assistant at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

As the Orange bus idled at the MARC station and MTA police got on to ensure people knew the new routes, she checked the time.

"I got on at 7:30," she said, pointing up at a clock that read 8:05. "We would normally be at Baltimore and Paca by now. It's already taking longer. This is supposed to be improved? We would've been downtown by now."

Several other riders murmured in agreement. By the time she stepped off the bus downtown, she pointed out, it was 8:22 a.m. — eight minutes before she needed to be at work.

"It's so ridiculous," she said. "You'd think they would try to make a good impression on the first weekday."

The new route names and destinations confused Antoinette Dawes, who was trying to get from West Baltimore to the Eastside One-Stop Career Center.

Dawes left about 11 a.m. and was still trying to figure out how to get there nearly four and a half hours later.

"It's a mess," the 27-year-old said before boarding her sixth bus of the day. "They need to change it back to how it's supposed to be."

As he waited for a bus to arrive at Mondawmin, Timothy Robinson-el said he planned to give the new system "the benefit of the doubt."

"If it works, it works," said Robinson-el, 54. "After all the money the governor spent, it'd better work."

Nate Robinsion said riders have only themselves to blame if they don't know the routes. The agency has been advertising the program and has made information available, he said.

"People should've just paid attention," said Robinson, 56, a rider who lives in East Baltimore. "It's not like it hasn't been put out there that this is going to change. If you don't take time to look at your surroundings and pay attention, it's on you."

Goldie Phillips, 62, sat at a bus stop at Johns Hopkins Bayview Monday morning whiling away some time before an appointment.

She took the Light Rail to the city from her overnight cleaning job at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, then the CityLink Orange to the hospital from Royal Farms Arena.

For the most part, the commute was seamless, Phillips said. Learning the new route names and where they all go will take some time, she said.

"It was helpful — and confusing a little bit," she said. "But it's good because it's change. Some people don't know how to deal with change."

After the general public learns the new routes, the next big hurdle for the bus network will come in the fall, when school starts and students begin riding it, Phillips noted.

The MTA purposefully waited until summer to overhaul the system to give the adult riders a chance to learn the routes before the buses become crammed with kids headed to school, officials said. A second wave of public education on the new routes is planned for the fall.

Phillips suggested parents should take the two weeks of free service as an opportunity to teach their children their routes to school.

"Make a day of it," she said. "Show them how to get to school and how to get home, instead of letting the whole summer go to waste and trying to cram everything into one day."

Phillips understands why many riders are skeptical of the MTA after years of putting up with service the governor called "abysmal." But she thinks the overhaul could work better.

"It's going to be good after they get the nooks and crannies out," she said. "Just give it a chance."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

@cmcampbell6

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