Less than a month away, $135 million BaltimoreLink bus overhaul rolling forward

Four Mondays from now, Darlene Brown and Indira McDonald don't know how they'll get to work.

The No. 60 bus route, which runs up and down Falls Road between Baltimore and their jobs at the Johns Hopkins Health Care & Surgery Center at Green Spring Station in Lutherville, will be cut short by five miles under the Maryland Transit Administration's BaltimoreLink route overhaul.

"You just redesigned a bus system that's putting people out of work," said Brown, a patient service coordinator. "What's five more miles? It's just a 10-minute ride. That's what angers me. I don't think that's going to break the MTA."

The bus route and their stop is one of hundreds the MTA is modifying or eliminating due to low ridership as part of an update to the system designed to make it faster and more reliable. The $135 million BaltimoreLink route overhaul, which Gov. Larry Hogan announced in 2015 after canceling the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project, is scheduled to take effect June 18.

BaltimoreLink modernizes a 50-year-old bus service largely designed to bring people downtown to better connect where they live and where they go today, whether it's employment centers, shopping or entertainment destinations, or other transit, according to the MTA. Decisions were based on ridership trends and the needs of potential riders and employers.

The overhaul is built around 12 color-coded, high-frequency bus lines through

suburban locations.

A month out, the MTA is in marketing mode. Ambassadors have been dispatched to high-volume stations. An "Info Bus" is ferrying passengers along the current routes for free, in exchange for a few moments of their attention as the changes to their commutes are explained to them. The MTA is floating the idea of making the first two weeks free while riders adjust to the new routes.

"We are knee-deep in public outreach," said Kevin Quinn, MTA director of planning and programming. "Nailing the public outreach, for us, is really important. Our goal is to have no rider left behind."

But when Brown and McDonald go to work June 19, their bus will turn around just north of Lake Avenue on Falls Road —more than three miles short of Green Spring Station.

Brown chafed at the idea that not enough riders take the No. 60 to make the route necessary. The low-ridership problem, she said, is a symptom of the bus service's unreliability; many stopped riding because they were unable to get to work on time.

"They couldn't depend on the No. 60 bus, so they found other jobs or purchased cars," she said. "Some of us don't have that luxury. My concern is my family. How am I going to get to work?"

McDonald, a radiology assistant, doesn't own a car.

"If they get rid of the No. 60 to Green Spring Station, I would have to find another job, because I wouldn't be able to keep this job," she said.

MTA officials, who conducted a series of public meetings to collect input on the system, said they remain open to tweaking the routes, Quinn said.

Brown has handed out fliers with the customer service phone number to fellow riders and has been calling constantly herself.

"I'm going to fight all the way up until June 18," she said. "If I have to fight afterward, I will. You can't leave this like this."

The MTA considers its bus drivers crucial to the rollout of BaltimoreLink and improving the system, but it has been feuding with their union.

"From the start, this BaltimoreLink has been a baffling mess, plagued with nothing but chaos, misplaced priorities and bad planning," said David McClure, president and business agent of the Amalgamated Transit Union 1300, the MTA operators' union.

The MTA said it has been training drivers on the new routes, but McClure disputed how well that was going. Less than a month from the new routes going into effect, operators still have not received the final route map, he said. (An interactive Google route map has been posted to the MTA's website, but the full geographic map has yet to be released.)

"It's confusing to a lot of people, even the drivers," he said. "If you don't train them properly, how are they going to convey that information to the riders? You just can't."

The MTA countered that the union has been part of the problem, refusing to give it enough time to train drivers by allowing them to pick their routes earlier than they usually do each June.

"If he is truly concerned about his operators, we're shocked David McClure denied our request to allow his operators to be trained on their specific routes at an earlier date," wrote MTA spokesman Ryan Nawrocki in an email. "We don't understand why [he] wants to sabotage BaltimoreLink to the detriment of the citizens of Baltimore."

Brian O'Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a rider advocacy group, said the bus system is overdue for an update, but he worries about whether it will work.

"Change is difficult and it's not going to be perfect," he said, "so it's critically important that this not be the last adjustment for a generation."

O'Malley does want more clarity on how the MTA will measure BaltimoreLink's effectiveness.

"The inefficiencies of this system are costing people a lot," he said. "How do we evaluate overall whether more people are better off or worse off?"

The MTA is modeling its launch partly off a similar overhaul by Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority in August 2015.

The Houston agency held several press conferences during the run-up to the launch, sent its CEO for interviews on local TV news and made the system free for a week, so people who got on the wrong bus wouldn't be punished by having to pay for it. It staffed its emergency operations center with police, operations, maintenance and media relations officials to quickly respond to any problem.

"We treated it like a major emergency response," said Kurt Luhrsen, the Houston authority's vice president of service planning. "Whatever problem or issue would come up, we had people in the room who could talk about it and make a decision in as close to real time as we could."

Houston's overhaul focused on providing frequent, seven-day service, reducing weekday service slightly to address weekend gaps, Lurhsen said. In the first year, weekend ridership jumped 35 percent to 40 percent, he said. Overall ridership grew more than 6 percent in the first year but remained flat the second, which he attributed to a struggling local economy.

Before its launch, the MTA added another form of outreach that Houston didn't do: the Info Bus.

As a handful of riders boarded the bus last week on the No. 3 route, which runs from Camden Yards up Charles Street through downtown, across 33rd Street, north on Loch Raven Boulevard, through Towson to Sheppard Pratt Hospital and back, Thomas Reaves raised a bullhorn to his mouth.

"In 31 days, this route will change," the MTA route expert's voice blared, prompting riders to remove their earbuds and look toward him. He proceeded to list the names of the various new routes that will serve the Charles Street corridor, where the Info Bus was rumbling northward.

Lashell Carey, another route expert on the bus, sidled up to Michele Lewis to ask her which routes she takes and explain the new ones she would use after June 18.

"I don't understand why y'all are doing this," said Lewis, 54, of Cherry Hill.

"After a couple of days, y'all going to see," Carey assured her. "It's going to be better service."

Like many riders, Lewis remained skeptical, muttering: "We'll see."

Carey was undeterred. She sat down next to rider after rider, discussing their commutes and assuring them the new system will work. She and other MTA contractors handed out red pamphlets titled, "What's Happening To My Route?"

"The city is expanding," she said. "There are jobs in new areas. It's time for a change. Sparrows Point is closed; Amazon is open. You have to change with the times."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

@cmcampbell6

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