Gov. Larry Hogan says his $135 million plan to upgrade Baltimore's bus system will be "transformative." But rider Shannon Campbell says it includes a transformation she hopes never to see.
As she waited at the busy corner of Greenmount Avenue and 33rd Street to catch the No. 8 downtown, Campbell struggled to understand why anyone would propose eliminating bus service on much of Greenmount.
"I've been riding the No. 8 since I was a little girl. For them to change it now would be very hard," she said. Sitting at the bus stop with her 3-year-old daughter, Campbell said it would be difficult to walk nearly half a mile to Charles Street with children in tow to take a bus to medical appointments.
"They're trying to serve other people," she said of the Maryland Transit Administration plan. "It ain't going to benefit nobody."
The proposal to stop running buses on Greenmount south of 39th Street is seen by transit advocates as perhaps the most glaring flaw in the first draft of Hogan's ballyhooed CityLink program, announced in the aftermath of his cancellation of the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project. Transit officials emphasize that the bus plan is subject to revision, but it is already raising concerns about the intentions of a Republican governor who has made highways his transportation priority.
When Hogan announced the plan last month, it was far from complete, consisting largely of color-coded lines on a map showing 12 high-frequency bus routes running mostly from the suburbs to downtown Baltimore. Since then, however, the MTA has posted details of what it is proposing to do with its existing local bus lines.
The changes would be sweeping. Virtually every route number would change. Routes that Baltimore riders have ridden since they were streetcar lines would be diverted or truncated. The need to transfer would increase in the hope that shorter routes would reduce delays and keep buses on schedule.
When the governor unveiled his plan, MTA officials promised that no neighborhoods would lose service and that more than 99 percent of current riders would still be near a bus stop. But as the details emerge, it appears that promise hinges on how one defines "near."
The changes to Greenmount — one of the city's busiest north-south arteries and a bustling business corridor — would eliminate some of the most heavily used stops in the city. Gone would be the stop on 25th Street, as well as the connection to crosstown service on North Avenue. Most affected would be the middle-class crossroads community of Waverly, which calls Greenmount its Main Street, and the lower-income neighborhoods to the south near the state prison complex. Riders in many cases would have to walk four or five extra blocks, day in and day out, in good weather and bad, along streets that can be less than inviting.
"That would be a problem for a lot of people," said rider Bobby Carter as he waited for the No. 8. "You have elderly. That's a stretch for them."
And as transit advocates and City Council members study the new maps, they are noticing other gaps and inconveniences that would come to a bus system that Hogan already calls "abysmal."
•Hampden would lose north-south service on Falls Road now provided by the No. 27 bus.
•There would be no north-south service on Charles Street between University Parkway and Northern Parkway, depriving the Notre Dame of Maryland University of its bus stop. The closest stop to the college would be on an east-west route half a mile away at Loyola University Maryland.
•Riders who can now make their trips on one bus will now have to transfer, adding to their costs unless the MTA changes its fare structure. Examples include riding from Westview Mall to downtown and from central Glen Burnie to Annapolis.
Riders in O'Donnell Heights, home to many shift workers, would see service that currently runs until 3 a.m. end at 11 p.m. on weeknights.
Garrison Boulevard would lose bus access on the No. 91 line between Walbrook Junction and the Rogers Avenue Metro station.
State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who represents Northwest Baltimore, said that proposal is unfair both to residents and the children who depend on the bus system to get to school. She said it's too much to expect riders to walk up Garrison to the Metro station or to a parallel route.
"The bus routes are so important to the vibrancy of the city," said Gladden, a Democrat. "You don't known how mad I am right now."
Leaders of groups that advocate improved transit in Baltimore are still studying the complicated proposal. Though many were ardent backers of the Red Line, they say they take Hogan at his word that he wants to improve bus service.
Brian O'Malley, executive director of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said he doesn't want to deliver a knee-jerk negative reaction based on a few obvious flaws such as the changes on Greenmount.
"I think we're overdue for an update to our bus routes," he said.
Ed Cohen, acting chairman of the MTA's Citizens Advisory Committee, gives the agency credit for undertaking a systematic examination of its bus route structure and proposing some useful new lines. But Cohen also sees big gaps in the MTA's proposal.
"There are a lot of places where there are no buses in the plan where there are buses now," he said. Cohen said the plan favors suburban park-and-ride customers over city neighborhoods and fails to address what he sees as the MTA's fundamental problem: a shortage of buses and drivers.
"Putting in more bus routes when you don't have enough buses for what you've got is not my recipe for making things better," he said.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes part of the Greenmount Avenue-York Road corridor, said she and her colleagues recently met with MTA administrator Paul Comfort and were briefed on the plan. Clarke said she hasn't had time to study all the details, but quickly noticed the "ghost route" where the No. 8 used to be.
"It's like 'Where's Waldo?' We're trying to find Waldo and make sure the No. 8 patrons are well served in this proposed new plan," she said. "We need a Greenmount route, and we need it all the way down."
Clarke praised Comfort's attitude and said she was confident that the Greenmount change was an "oversight."
"He was very positive about working with the community, working with the council," she said. "He showed a lot of energy and thought."
Comfort said that nothing in the proposed plan is final and emphasized that the MTA is seeking the community's comments. He said the MTA has already held two workshops on the proposed changes and will hold eight more — including one Monday at 4 p.m. at State Center, 201 W. Preston St.
"The feedback we're getting from the public is generally positive," he said.
Comfort said one of the key components of the governor's plan is to make sure current riders do not lose service, though they may see their bus moved to the next street over. He said he is aware of the complaints about Greenmount.
"We've heard that loud and clear and we will make adjustments," Comfort said.
The MTA will be gathering public reaction up to Dec. 23, Comfort said. After that, he said, the MTA will make revisions based on the feedback and bring a new plan to formal public hearings early next year.
Comfort said that while the changes won't please everyone, he's confident the final plan will be an improvement.
"It's going to create a system that people will rely on," he said.
Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect and transit consultant, foresees tough challenges. He said that for now, it's difficult to assess whether it's a good plan or not. One thing that's obvious, he said, is that it involves a lot of change that will require riders to adjust their thinking.
"You have a lot more transfers," he said. "You have to give up the sacred cow of the one-seat trip."
Philipsen said that to make that work, the MTA will have to change its fare structure so that riders can make those transfers without increasing their costs. And like Cohen, he thinks more resources will be needed to improve a system that's "stressed to the max."
Despite his deep disappointment with Hogan's decision to cancel the Red Line, a project he worked on for more than a decade, Philipsen said he's wishing the administration success with its bus overhaul.
"I really hope it doesn't run into a wall," he said. I really want to see it work."