MTA officials pull all-nighter for 3 a.m. launch of $135 million BaltimoreLink bus route overhaul

At 3:10 a.m. Sunday, the last of the Maryland Transit Administration's new BaltimoreLink bus stop signs was unveiled.

Exactly one minute later, the first bus — on the LocalLink 94 route between Fort McHenry and Sinai Hospital — hit the road.

Kevin B. Quinn Jr., the MTA's acting CEO, stepped onto the bus as it idled in the MTA Bush Division parking lot at Washington Boulevard and Monroe Street, to check on Calvin Lambert, the 57-year-old bus driver who would be the first to execute the plan Quinn has spent the last 19 months designing, and redesigning.

"How's it feel?" Quinn asked Lambert.

"It feels pretty good," he replied. "I just came off vacation. I'm good."

Quinn wished him luck: "Kill it, alright? I'm serious."

The overnight launch of Gov. Larry Hogan's $135 million remodeling of the Baltimore region's bus routes marked the conclusion of more than a year of planning, public meetings and bus driver training and re-training on a sweeping redesign of the routes, signage and branding — what the governor hopes will be a "transformative" overhaul for the bus system.

The new system is built around a dozen color-coded, high-frequency CityLink routes that run every 10 minutes through downtown, with less frequent LocalLink routes and weekday ExpressLink commuter routes radiating off from them. The overhaul includes bus-only lanes painted on major streets downtown, traffic-light sensors on buses that extend green lights and shorten red ones, and a renovated West Baltimore MARC station with a newly installed bus turnaround area.

It's the first major overhaul in decades for the bus routes, many of which were modeled from old streetcar paths. The system has drawn complaints for years from riders about long wait times, slow transit and bad customer service — problems the MTA and the governor himself have acknowledged. When Hogan announced the BaltimoreLink plan in 2015, he called the existing system "abysmal."

Hundreds of underused, antiquated or unnecessary bus stops have been removed in an effort to speed the buses more quickly through the region, officials said, and the longest routes have been shortened to lower headways. Service will be free for two weeks to celebrate the launch.

As James F. Ports Jr., the deputy transportation secretary for operations, waited for the first buses to leave, he noted the amount of work that has gone into planning the overhaul: constant conference calls, twice-a-week staff meetings to make sure the system would be ready, reviewing and editing the draft plan.

"It's almost like having a baby, except we've been at it for 19 months," Ports said.

Christine Davis, the Bush Division superintendent, stood amid a cluster of balloons in the main hall at about 3:30 a.m. as some of the first drivers of the day reported for work.

"I haven't been asleep, but I'm pumped," she said. "I wish they could get a taste of how I feel."

Davis, who was previously a bus driver, said teaching the new routes to all of the drivers has been a long, ongoing process. Instructors took three busloads of drivers out for last-minute training on Saturday morning — less than 24 hours before the launch, she said. Each driver received booklets with turn-by-turn directions and were given opportunities for re-training if they wanted it.

"I think they're very prepared," she said. "It's a little hard with the change, but we're adjusting."

The superintendent believes the new bus routes will speak for themselves once the drivers and the public get a chance to ride them and see how much the service improves. She hopes drivers' attendance rate — which is currently in the low 70s, with the other 30-some percent calling out of work for various reasons — will rise with their morale as they try out the new routes.

In the meantime, doughnuts and bagels would have to do the trick. She headed off to pass them out to the employees clocking in for their pre-dawn shifts.

"I'm just jumping, I'm moving," Davis said. "I'm asking every operator, what do you need? Anything you need, I'll get it."

As more buses pulled out of the parking lot just after 4 a.m., Quinn and other officials headed inside to an operations center in an air-conditioned conference room at the Bush Division. Video conferencing was enabled between the conference room and another at the MTA's downtown operations center near Lexington Market for officials to share updates. Several large screens displayed the new routes, call volume, the redesigned MTA website, social media chatter and a map showing how many of the bus stop signs had been unveiled.

Pairs of contractors had been given 12 hours, from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. to remove the canvas covers from 5,000 new MTA bus stop signs across the region. They finished the job five hours early, Quinn said, scrolling in on the map, covered in green dots. (About 20 signs couldn't be reached for various reasons, such as ongoing construction. Of those, 10 had been stolen or had otherwise disappeared and will be reprinted, he said.)

Dre Johnson was up all night, too. The 20-year-old Amazon warehouse employee, who lives in Edmondson Village, waited at a bus stop on Fayette Street near Charles Street downtown on his way home from an overnight shift about 6 a.m. He leafed, confused, through a pamphlet describing the new CityLink Orange, which runs east-west between Essex and the West Baltimore MARC station.

"Before, I could just catch the 23 or the 40 straight home," he said.

The two weeks of free service sounded good to him, though: "It makes up for the fact that it's hard to figure out where you're going."

Alec Pugh, 21, who works with Johnson at Amazon, waited nearby for a bus to take him home to Yale Heights. He used to take the No. 10.

He's reserving judgment on the new system until he has a chance to ride it regularly.

"I've got to get used to it, so I don't know," he said.

As Johnson, Pugh and other riders do just that, MTA officials will be collecting feedback on what is working and what should be tweaked, Ports said.

"I don't care what system it is, when you roll out a major transformation like this, no one, no team of planners, could ever ever get 100 percent of everything correct," he said. "We have to have the mindset that you're going to learn and it's going to be a continuous improvement process. We want this to be the best system in the entire country."

Quinn said he was happy with the rollout — although he and Ports noted the Monday morning commute will be the real test after Sunday's soft launch.

"I'm feeling pretty excited, feeling pretty hopeful," Quinn said. "I think we've done a good job of public outreach, a good job of getting our operators ready to go. This is it. This is the big moment."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

@cmcampbell6

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