Sweeping revision of bus routes proposed

The Maryland Transit Administration's M12 bus route meanders through Baltimore County's Green Spring Valley - stopping here and there to let off a maid or a nanny outside the sprawling home of her prosperous employer.

If beautiful scenery or friendly vibes were the standards for a bus route, the M12 would run forever. It's a bus where people take up collections when their fellow passengers have a death or wedding in their lives.

"You get to know everybody. It's a little like family," said longtime rider Carolyn Perry.

But the M12 is one of the biggest money-losers in the MTA system, so the agency is proposing to end the service Oct. 16 as part of the most comprehensive restructuring of MTA routes in at least three decades.

The overhaul would discontinue almost a dozen MTA lines, add service on well-traveled routes and affect virtually every community in metropolitan Baltimore.

The proposed changes will be the subject of six public hearings next week, starting with a noon-to-8 p.m. marathon Monday at War Memorial Plaza. Community activists and advocates for transit riders are preparing for stormy sessions.

Dubbed the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative, the plan is a priority of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. It represents an effort to streamline and simplify the system while bringing its route structure, which in many cases reflects the Baltimore economy of 1970, into the 21st century.

It is a huge undertaking, fraught with political peril and raising sensitive issues of race and class.

Some critics charge that the changes are driven by a desire on the part of a transit-hostile Republican administration to cut transit spending and shift money to road-building.

"This was a political choice the administration made. They thought too large a percentage of the Transportation Trust Fund was going to too small a segment - that most people are in cars on the roadways, and too small a fraction are using transit," said Ed Cohen, president of the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore.

But Flanagan is promising that the revised bus system will better serve 99 percent of the MTA's riders - particularly those on core routes in the city and inner suburbs.

Flanagan denied that the initiative is driven solely by a desire to improve the system's "farebox recovery" - the percentage of the system's costs that are paid by riders. Under state law, the system is required to maintain a farebox recovery rate of 40 percent.

"This represents an historic effort to improve public transit in the Baltimore metropolitan area," Flanagan said. "Governor Ehrlich believes that public transit should be run in a way that offers the best possible service to our customers."

Whether or not money is the driving force behind the changes, there is a hope on the part of state officials that some money can be freed up for other purposes. The governor's budget sets a target of $5 million, but MTA officials say that is a flexible number because the hearings could yield changes to the plan.

The MTA expects the initiative to yield dozens of improvements to the often-criticized system, such as:
  • More frequent service on "crosstown" routes, which don't go through downtown, such as the 13, 22, 33, 44 and 51.
  • Additional midday service to reflect rider demand on busy routes.
  • Better tie-ins with light rail and the Metro subway.
  • More realistic schedules, reflecting the traffic congestion of today compared with 30 years ago. The schedules would increase the rest time for drivers at the end of each route.
  • Improved service to such booming areas as Fells Point and Canton, which would get a transfer-free connection to Penn Station, Charles Village and Homeland.
  • A new, limited-stop No. 40 bus through downtown that would foreshadow part of the projected route of the east-west Red Line transit service expected to be established during the next decade.
  • Increased weekend service on routes serving West Baltimore, Essex, Cherry Hill, Towson, Halethorpe, Mount Washington, Bayview, Owings Mills and Curtis Bay, among others.
But the improvements Flanagan envisions require an extensive paring of service to more far-flung areas.

Among the places that would lose service are many industrial parks at the far ends of branch lines. Public transit to outside-the-Beltway suburbs such as Ellicott City, where the No. 150 bus boards an average of just 143 riders a day, would be written off as a failed experiment.

The shortening and discontinuation of routes would cut off some riders from their jobs. Many of them are African-Americans who live in Baltimore and don't own cars.

Some critics see the proposal in terms of race and class.

"The people who are doing it don't live in the inner city and don't depend on mass transit," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a West Baltimore Democrat.

Marriott sees the proposal as an effort to attract more affluent riders at the expense of her constituents.

"The people who are dependent on public transportation, who do not have alternatives, are not the priority," she said.

Deoleous Bridges, president of Local 1300 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents MTA drivers, says the proposed cuts will fall hardest on African-Americans. He points to the proposed elimination of No. 8 bus service to the Stella Maris health care complex in Dulaney Valley and No. 23 service to the Pulaski Industrial Park in Essex.

"You have a number of black employees who work out there. How are they going to get to work?" he asked.

That is the question riders are asking on the M12, which makes an hourlong circle from the Milford Mill Metro stop to the Green Spring and Caves valleys.

Juanita Davenport, who depends on the bus to take her from West Baltimore's Walbrook Junction to her employer's home near Stevenson, said she has no other way to get to work.

"Not everyone has a car, and without the buses a lot of people won't be able to go to work," said Davenport, a domestic worker.

But by any economic standard, the M12 is an underperforming line. Every time a rider boards, the taxpayers pony up $9.41, according to MTA figures.

According to riders and the MTA, the M12 exists to serve two groups: domestic workers, and students and staff at Villa Julie College, the only major employer along the route.

On a recent weekday, two dozen riders were on the modern, comfortable 8:20 a.m. bus as it departed Milford Mill. All were African-American. With classes over for the summer at Villa Julie, virtually all the riders were of middle age or older - only a few of them male - and most were going from the city to clean homes or to care for somebody else's children.

As the bus made its way past the elegant homes on its route, the ridership steadily dwindled. Passengers got off in dribs and drabs; none got on.

By the time the bus reached Villa Julie it was empty except for a driver-trainee and her instructor. For the rest of the run along Greenspring Avenue, which terminated in the leafy subdivision of Greenwood, and along the entire return trip to Milford Mill, nobody boarded.

The day's ridership was down because Villa Julie is not holding classes.

Cammeron Williams, 18, a Villa Julie student who lives in East Baltimore, says she is one of a group of about 20 students who depend on the M12 to get to the school from the city:

"Most of the black people in that school take the bus. If you eliminate the M12 bus, most of that population is gone."

Villa Julie spokeswoman Glenda LeGendre described the proposal to eliminate the bus route as "totally unacceptable."

Flanagan, however, says colleges and businesses bear some responsibility for helping their employees and students get to work. He noted that in some areas that don't have bus service, private employers and colleges provide shuttles to and from the nearest transit stop.

The potential loss of access to jobs is far from the only controversial proposed change.

On some routes, the consolidation of parallel lines would mean longer walks to and from bus stops - a particular concern of the frail elderly.

Among the routes to be abolished as duplicative are the No. 7 serving low-income neighborhoods along Pennsylvania Avenue and the No. 61 to upper-crust Roland Avenue. Riders in both corridors, black and white, will have an equal opportunity to express their unhappiness.

Nathan Kane, a Roland Park resident who rides the bus by choice rather than out of necessity, plans to attend the hearings to protest the plan. He says the nearest alternate route is too far away to be practical:

"I'd probably have to drive."

Even critics of the Ehrlich administration's transit policies concede that the MTA's routes are long overdue for scrutiny.

Occasionally, as in 1986 and 1993, the agency has implemented major changes on multiple routes.

But never in the years since the state's old Metropolitan Transit Authority took over the private Baltimore Transit Co. in 1970 has the system undergone as comprehensive an overhaul as the one the MTA is proposing. Only seven out of the 59 routes in the MTA's core system - not including commuter buses - would be unchanged.

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said his business advocacy group has been hearing complaints from some of his member companies. But as a former legislator who served on budget oversight committees, he appreciates the magnitude of the job the MTA is undertaking.

"Anybody who has their service terminated is not going to be happy. That's probably why you haven't had a serious look at restructuring before," Fry said. "It is a courageous and significant move to take."

Dan Pontious, policy director of the liberal-leaning Citizens Planning and Housing Association, sees a lot in the proposal he doesn't like. He believes any savings achieved by cutting routes should be plowed into improved bus service.

But he appreciates the difficulty - and necessity - of the task the MTA is undertaking.

"The Ehrlich administration deserves credit for taking this on - for taking a look at the big picture of the bus system and asking how do we best spend our resources," he said.

The idea of a comprehensive restructuring of the region's bus lines did not originate with Flanagan. But once the former Howard County legislator took charge of the Transportation Department in 2003, he adopted the idea as if it were his own.

"I made it a priority. It is part of the Ehrlich administration's focus on improving public transit in the here and now," he said.

The proposed overhaul is the result of months of studies and surveys in which MTA employees rode every line in the system at various times of day. MTA officials also held meetings with community groups, schools, transit advocates and others with an interest in the system, which serves about 229,000 riders on a typical workday.

"What we've done, I think, is a tremendous job of developing a proposal to revitalize the system so that it works best for 99 percent of our customers," Flanagan said. He acknowledged that he'd like to attract more middle-income riders but denied the proposals reflect class bias.

"There are far more poor people who will benefit from this change than there are poor people whose problems we are trying to solve but who might be adversely affected," he said.

The transportation secretary also rejects the idea that the route changes are stacked against the elderly because some require riders to walk a few blocks farther to a bus stop. He says many riders will find the burden of a longer walk is offset by a shorter wait as the MTA runs more frequent buses on the surviving routes:

"Many elderly like to walk. I would not assume the elderly cannot walk one or two blocks. We do believe walking is healthy for most people, and we do believe waiting for a bus is an inconvenience for most people."

Some critics, including union leader Bridges, are skeptical about the public hearings. He and others suspect Ehrlich administration officials have made up their minds and the public sessions will be just for show.

Flanagan insists that's not true and that nothing in the proposal is final.

"We want to be very careful about listening to what our constituents want and what they have to say," he said.