Veronica Gee, a city bus operator, explains some of the ins and outs of the BaltimoreLink transit plan. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)
Tyrese Solomon watched as two MTA buses in a row pulled up to the crowded bus stop at North and Greenmount avenues in East Baltimore, then stopped again in a few feet to wait several minutes at the intersection's red light on a recent afternoon.
The 20-year-old Maryland Institute College of the Arts student, waiting to take the No. 22 line to work at Mondawmin Mall, pointed at the two No. 8 buses idling together.
"Look at that," she said, "an 8, and then another 8 right behind it."
The problem of "bus-bunching" is often a result of buses caught in gridlock as they transit their routes. It's among the chief complaints of riders because it creates longer waits — 45 minutes of more, some say — until the next bus arrives.
As part of Gov. Larry Hogan's BaltimoreLink bus system overhaul, the Maryland Transit Administration has budgeted $11 million to install sensors on 200 local buses — out of 760 — and city traffic signals that will keep traffic lights green for six to 10 seconds longer when a bus is approaching, and shorten red lights for waiting buses by the same amount of time.
The goal of the Transit Signal Priority technology — along with the planned creation of five miles of bus-only lanes and removal of hundreds of underused bus stops — is to allow buses to spend more time moving and less time in traffic, increasing on-time rates across the system.
"The system has not been efficient, and it has not been reliable," MTA administrator Paul Comfort acknowledged. "It takes too long to ride the bus to travel half a mile."
Veronica Gee, who has spent 17 years behind the wheel of an MTA bus, said bus operators are excited by the measures designed to free their routes from the traffic gridlock that often grips streets downtown.
"It keeps the service efficient and on-time," said Gee, 46, of Northeast Baltimore. "It's [about] allowing us to get through the city and keeping our customers happy."
Average daily ridership on MTA's buses was 248,749 during fiscal year 2016, according to Ryan Nawrocki, an MTA spokesman.
The sensors, which cost $22,000 per traffic signal and $6,000 per bus, already have been installed in the buses and will be placed at the intersections between now and May, in time for the June 18 roll-out of the BaltimoreLink overhaul of the city's bus routes.
The technology, already in use on the Light Rail on Howard Street, will debut on buses and intersections in the York Road/Greenmount Avenue and Loch Raven Boulevard corridors, which both take more than an hour to transit end-to-end, according to the MTA.
Adjusting the light times slightly for buses shouldn't throw off Baltimore's overall traffic grid, said Frank Murphy, the acting city transportation director. If transportation officials noticed it was causing backups, he said, they could readjust the light times to alleviate them.
"We don't anticipate problems," he said. "But if there are, we've got the solution."
Nineteen bus stops in the city will be moved to the far side of intersections, so that a bus can make it through a green light, then stop to pick up passengers, rather than stopping to pick them up, and then stopping again as the light turns red.
"It's essentially avoiding what it's doing today: wasting 2 minutes sitting at that light," said Kevin Quinn, director of the MTA's office of planning and programming.
The promise of the new technology — much like the BaltimoreLink overhaul in general — faces skepticism from riders in the city who have spent years lamenting unreliable service.
"It sounds good," Solomon said, "but I don't know if it's really going to work."
Geraldine Clifton, 52, who works in food service at Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School, said she waited three hours one evening last week for her No. 27 bus to come. She called with the bus tracking number, and was told the dispatcher didn't know where it was.
Clifton's opinion of the current system? "It stinks." Her expectations for the new traffic light sensors? "I guess it will help," she said. "We'll see."
The Federal Hill woman said she has seen some bus drivers drop off students in the middle of the street and act rudely toward riders, even those with disabilities. Getting buses through intersections quicker would be nice, she said, but it won't affect customer service.
"I think it's about them being held accountable," she said.
Comfort said he hired an outside customer service manager solely to focus on the issue, and has mandated that all the city's 1,700 bus drivers undergo hours of customer service training in addition to their required instruction. The MTA used to respond to complaints in 15 business days; it has shortened that response time to less than a week, he said.
Riders and MTA officials both recognize that unreliable service is more than an inconvenience. If a bus doesn't come, many of the riders in the city each day have no alternative way to get to school, work or appointments.
"People don't have cars," Clifton said. "It might show up, it might not. That's all you can do as a commuter. ... You tell your job, 'I ride Maryland transportation. I might get there on time, I might not.'"
The bus system's on-time rates are in the mid-70 percent range, Comfort said, and he wants to increase it to the 80s, at least, which would place it among the nation's best. The $135 million overhaul is the largest in the country, he said, and other cities are watching how it plays out.
Both Chicago and Portland, Ore., have implemented similar traffic signal priority systems, resulting in shorter waits for buses, but no city has undertaken an overhaul as ambitious as the one planned in Baltimore, Comfort said.
"I think BaltimoreLink will improve the customer experience," he said. "I want them to have a tremendous experience on our vehicles."
Teresa Queen, 44, commutes on the bus between her job as a chef at Loyola College and her home in East Baltimore. She's convinced the traffic lights aren't the problem, but rather that the MTA doesn't have enough buses running.
The MTA maintains that it has enough buses — including 172 new vehicles to replace aging ones in its fleet — but that deploying them more efficiently will make a noticeable difference.
Queen just wants them to come on time.
"If it says 2:30, have it come at 2:30," she said. "We understand if it's 2:32, but not a whole hour late."
Priscilla Blain, 64, a retired state social worker, takes the No. 8, 36 and 13 lines to her doctor's appointments and to visit her grandchildren. Having ridden the bus system her entire life, she doubts it will improve.
"Until they put more buses on the line and upgrade the courtesy and professionalism of their drivers, nothing's going to change," Blain said.
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The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a rider advocacy group, has called for the state to conduct surveys of the bus system to evaluate BaltimoreLink's impact.
Alliance president Brian O'Malley said he doesn't blame riders for being cynical; the burden is on the state to prove that the overhaul works by improving reliability.
"I would put it this way," he said, "They're right to focus on measurable results."
"I don't think anyone knows absolutely which of these solutions will work — or which combination of them will work — the best," O'Malley said. "But we should measure before and after and learn so we can continue to improve the system."