Obscure third way connects Baltimore and Washington

For two cities so close whose fortunes are so entwined, Baltimore and Washington have an abysmal lack of transit connections. Greyhound runs a comprehensive schedule but is a bit pricey for regular commuter use at $12 one way. Its Baltimore station is stuck in an industrial district far from the light rail or subway.

The MARC train costs $7 between Baltimore and Washington (with discounts for regular users) but runs a restricted schedule -- especially on the Camden Line -- with no weekend service. It's also prone to delays as a result of accidents, track work or equipment failure.There is, however, a Third Way. It's not exceptionally fast, and it requires use of the light rail, but it appears to be reasonably reliable, and it runs on weekends and as late as 10 p.m. northbound and 10:45 p.m. southbound. Unlike the MARC, which constantly struggles with overcrowding, it could expand the frequency of service easily with consumer demand.

It's the B30 bus.

If it doesn't sound familiar, that's probably because it's not a Maryland Transit Administration bus. It's a Washington Metrobus that connects BWI Marshall Airport with the Greenbelt Metro Station -- the northern terminus of the Washington subway's Green Line.

And as bus routes go, it's a gem. There are no stops between the airport area and Greenbelt. It whizzes along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and makes the run in about a half-hour, leaving you off right at the subway. It runs at 40-minute intervals.

The time of travel varies based on how the services connect. But on a good day it could take as little as an hour and a half from downtown Baltimore to downtown Washington. That's not as fast as MARC -- when MARC is behaving -- but it's not a bad backup for rail commuters.

Last week, not wanting to recommend something I hadn't tested, I simulated missing the last morning Camden Line train to Washington at 8:15 a.m.

Before setting off, I asked several MARC customers what they would do if they missed that train.

Jessica Smits' first reaction was that she'd have to drive. The only other solution, she said, would be to go to Penn Station and travel to Union Station in Washington on the Penn Line, then use the subway to get to her workplace in College Park.

She had never heard of the B30.

Yes, you could drive -- if you have a car. And, yes, you could take the light rail north to Penn Station to catch the 9:05 a.m. train. It would get you in to Union Station at 10:03 -- if there are no delays.

Or you could walk a few steps to the Camden Yards light rail stop, buy a $1.60 ticket and catch the first train to BWI. The light rail was running 11 minutes late the day I tried it, but I still made the 9 a.m. B30 with four minutes to spare.

The bus stop at the terminal is just outside the lower level of the International Terminal -- steps from where the light rail arrives.

There were only three other passengers on the bus. The seats were comfortable. The fare: $3.

"It is a good value," said rider Michelle Sanchez of College Park. "Frankly, I've never seen it full."

Gabrielle Ludwig had just arrived aboard a redeye flight from California and was returning to her home in Washington. She refuses to use expensive and slow airport shuttles but says "there's still a stigma" about using the bus system.

"A lot of people don't even realize there's this service," she says. "They think about Metro. They don't think about the buses."

The bus arrived at Greenbelt at 9:29 a.m. -- on time to the minute. At 9:40, the subway pulled out of Greenbelt and stopped at College Park at 9:44 -- just 43 minutes later than a passenger who caught the Camden Line train would have arrived and much sooner that someone taking the Penn Line to Union Station.

(If you're a car-deprived UM student from the Baltimore area, you should print out the B30 schedule from the WMATA Web site and post it in your room. The combined full-fare cost is a nickel less than MARC. And you can use it Saturday and Sunday to haul some laundry home.)

The subway brought me to Gallery Place, an important downtown transfer point, at 10:05 a.m. -- a few minutes better than could have been achieved taking the Penn Line to Union Station.

A little late for work, perhaps, but a good recovery from a missed train (or a MARC meltdown). The cost: $7.65 at peak times versus $8.35 using MARC and Metro. (Caveat: MARC is cheaper at $7 if your final destination is Union Station.)

One tip for the reverse journey: In good weather, get off the B30 at the BWI Business District light rail station, where it stops first. You might get lucky and catch an earlier train to Baltimore.

The pity here is that this is a nearly 6-year-old service, underwritten by Maryland, and the state has done little to publicize it in recent years.

Neither has there been much cooperation between the MTA and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority -- as is evident from the lack of light rail information on the B30 and MTA's failure to post information about the B30 on light rail and MARC.

WMATA operations chief Jim Hughes said the agency has promoted the B30 as a way to get to BWI but hasn't really thought of it as a link to the MTA light rail or a resource for UM students.

It's clear these two agencies need to talk.

While they're at it, they could also look at integrating MTA information into the WMATA Web site's nifty trip planner.

It'll plot you a course anywhere on its own system, which the MTA site doesn't do, but it won't tell you how to connect to Baltimore, Annapolis or other places served by the MTA. That's goofy.

MTA, meet WMATA. WMATA, meet MTA.
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