Riders criticize BaltimoreLink at meeting while MTA tweaks service

One week into the BaltimoreLink bus route overhaul, Towanda Barnhill, 42, said she's been getting into trouble with her boss because she's been a half hour late to her job at a bakery on Hollins Ferry Road.

"It has been a disaster," Barnhill said. "This is my livelihood, this is how I eat, this is how I keep a roof over my head."

Barnhill was one of several bus riders who openly worried about losing their jobs because of bus delays at a town hall meeting Monday evening at the War Memorial building downtown. Many riders shouted their frustrations with the new system, with some concerned about their children getting to school on time once it begins in the fall or about senior citizens who now have to walk much further to stops.

Almost all who spoke said they wished the MTA had kept its old bus routes and spent the money on more bus drivers. Those who said they wanted the old system back were met with standing ovations from the crowd.

Following complaints from some riders about long wait times in the first week of the BaltimoreLink bus route overhaul, the Maryland Transit Administration said Monday it would increase early morning service on three of its high-frequency east-west CityLink routes.

The $135 million redesign of the system is built around a dozen of the color-coded, high-frequency CityLink routes that run through downtown, with less frequent LocalLink and weekday Express BusLink commuter routes radiating from them. To speed the buses' travel, the MTA trimmed its routes, removed hundreds of underused bus stops, installed bus-only lanes on the major thoroughfares downtown and traffic-light sensors in buses to shorten red lights and lengthen green ones.

The CityLink routes run every 10 minutes during peak hours, and every 30 minutes to an hour depending on the routes during off-peak hours.

The new routes debuted last week, along with 5,000 new bus stop signs, to a mixed reaction from riders, many of whom spent their first weekday commute learning the new system on the fly, asking the bus drivers and each other where their buses now go. The agency held dozens of community meetings before the launch to gather feedback and dispatched hundreds of route experts to assist riders.

Acting MTA chief Kevin B. Quinn emphasized that the additional service is an example of the agency's willingness to retool the system based on riders' concerns. Quinn said the agency would consider tweaking some bus stops and routes based on the feedback he got Monday evening.

"We are glad to receive feedback from our riders so we can make the system work better for them," Quinn said.

Quinn said he understood that the changes were difficult for many riders and said that was why the agency was offering transit service for free till the end of the month, so riders could familiarize themselves with the new routes.

"You can't really fix a broken system without changing it and that's been a key part of what we've been trying to do."

Cara Hackett, a 52-year-old transgender woman, said she had to quit her job soliciting donations for a nonprofit because the new bus route meant she would get off at night at the intersection of North and Greenmount avenues, where there have been shootings and other activity over the years.

"I cannot stand out in certain areas," she said. "I had a safe route with the old system. It got me in front of my house, I had to take one bus to go to work.

I had to make a decision. I can't do it. And I quit my job."

Asia Hightower-El, 33, said she has been written up at her job at a nursing home for being late, despite waking up well before dawn.

"Gov. Hogan, is he going to pay my bills when I'm fired because I can't get to work on time?" she said.

Many riders upset with the overhaul criticized Gov. Larry Hogan, who proposed BaltimoreLink after canceling the Red Line light rail project. A spokeswoman for Hogan referred comment to the MTA.

In a sign that the bus overhaul may become a campaign issue, a representative for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous spoke at the town hall and criticized the changes.

After the launch, the MTA added new service beginning at 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. in both directions on its CityLink Orange route, which runs between West Baltimore and Essex. The westbound trips, starting at Fox Ridge in Essex, supplement existing service at 4 and 5 a.m., and the eastbound trips provide two earlier options than the current 5 a.m. trip, the MTA said.

Two new CityLink Pink buses, a 3:15 and a 4:15 a.m., will head westward on the route to West Baltimore from Cedonia., the agency said.

The CityLink Blue, between Woodlawn and Johns Hopkins Bayview in Southeast Baltimore, will add a round trip beginning at 3:45 a.m. to supplement an existing 4:40 a.m. bus. Both leave from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the new bus' return trip westbound from Bayview leaves at 4 a.m., before the existing 4:22 a.m. bus, the MTA said.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

@cmcampbell6

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad