Veronica Gee, a city bus operator, explains some of the ins and outs of the BaltimoreLink transit plan. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)
A week before a major overhaul of Baltimore bus routes, the Maryland Transit Administration saw the abrupt departure of its top executive and a shootout involving an MTA bus in Dundalk.
Such distractions aren't ideal circumstances for the rollout of Gov. Larry Hogan's $135 million BaltimoreLink bus route makeover, which is designed to make a system Hogan called "abysmal" more reliable and better connected. But the overhaul, which eliminates or alters many routes and bus stops, faces skepticism from some riders and the bus drivers union, which argues the operators aren't ready.
The MTA released the final geographic route map on June 2, a little more than two weeks before the BaltimoreLink launches on June 18.
Overseeing the launch now falls on Kevin Quinn, who was promoted Tuesday to acting administrator from director of planning and programs, where he was involved deeply with developing the overhaul.
Quinn acknowledged in an interview Friday that it's been "a bit of a crazy week."
He praised the courage of the driver of the No. 10 bus, which was boarded by a robbery suspect and then stopped by police. The suspect, Blaine Robert Erb, 35, fired on police from the doors of the bus, seriously injuring an officer and wounding a bystander before being killed by police.
"It's horrible she had to go through what she did," Quinn said.
Quinn said he feels prepared to assume his new role because he has worked with departments across the agency to plan BaltimoreLink. He declined to say whether he hopes to stay in the job permanently, saying he's too focused about BaltimoreLink to worry about job titles.
"Right now our big focus is still just getting BaltimoreLink ready to go," he said. "We're still focused on keeping the ship moving forward."
Designed to better connect where people live with where they go, whether it's employment centers, shopping or entertainment destinations, or other transit, the overhaul was developed based on ridership trends and the needs of potential riders and employers.
It's built around 12 color-coded, high-frequency CityLink bus lines that travel through downtown Baltimore to and from suburban locations with LocalLink routes offering less frequest service radiating off those lines. There are also about a dozen ExpressLink weekday commuter routes.
The departure of MTA Administrator Paul Comfort and his chief of staff, Jim Knighton, is disruptive but won't doom the BaltimoreLink debut, said Brian O'Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a rider advocacy group.
"They've already printed the schedules, they've already been training the operators, so they're really at the implementation of the final phase leading up to the launch," O'Malley said.
O'Malley praised Quinn as "very qualified," although he questioned the timing of Comfort's departure. The state transportation department gave no reasoning in its announcement Tuesday, calling it a personnel matter.
Documents released Friday showed that Knighton authorized spending of more than $65,000 on remodeling Comfort's offices in Baltimore. The purchases were made without competitive bids as required under state law for purchases of more than $25,000. Officials would not say whether the purchases were related to the departure of Comfort and Knighton.
The discord between the MTA and its operators union could be more troublesome for the launch of BaltimoreLink.
"Between 75 and 80 percent of my operators do not understand what the MTA is doing," said David McClure, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300.
The union claims agency officials didn't follow contractual rules governing when drivers can pick their routes, while the MTA says the union, which opposes the overhaul, refused to allow bus drivers to see the new routes early.
Quinn disputed the notion that operators aren't ready for the launch. After training sessions, 95 percent of them said in anonymous surveys that they are confident in their training, he said. The MTA also has provided operators with videos depicting the routes and route books with turn-by-turn directions — and even restroom locations. Additional instruction is available to any driver who wants it, he said.
A recent "turning of the tide" has occurred, Quinn said, with bus operators and riders becoming more and more receptive to BaltimoreLink.
"In the last six months, there's been a real, gradual shift," he said.
Still, many remain skeptical about the state's plan to fix its notoriously unreliable bus system — and irritated about an upcoming ticket price increase set to go into effect a week later.
Transit fares will rise by 10 cents, to $1.80, for one-way tickets on June 25. (While it may seem poorly timed, the timing of the price increase is mandated by state law and unrelated to BaltimoreLink, MTA officials said.)
The MTA is allowing riders to use the system for free the first two weeks to allow people to get accustomed to the changes, but that's little solace for some riders.
Valerie Farmer shook her head as she stood in the rain last week outside a covered bus stop near Westview Mall in Catonsville, looking at the shelter's shattered glass panes scattered on the sidewalk.
Farmer, 61, a professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, takes the No. 15 bus from her home in Windsor Hills to the Craigmont Road stop at Westview, where she transfers to the No. 77 bus for the rest of the ride to the college.
She plans to leave her job after 20 years rather than use the new system, which would either require her to take the new LocalLink 79 to Security Boulevard in Woodlawn and transfer to the LocalLink 37 to CCBC, or take another route with an additional transfer.
"It's a mess," Farmer said. "I'm retiring. I don't want that commute."
Darlene Brown, a patient service coordinator at a Johns Hopkins clinic in Lutherville, plans to protest the MTA's move to end bus service short of Green Spring Station by walking the three miles up Falls Road with her fellow No. 60 bus riders on the June 18 BaltimoreLink launch.
"How are we going to commute to work?" she wrote in an open letter to Quinn last week. "Did the Maryland Transit [Administration] design the Baltimore Link to compromise the jobs of its Loyal Commuters to cut cost?"
Quinn said the No. 60 bus has the lowest ridership in the system. He said the MTA is working with Johns Hopkins to address the gap in service but had not resolved it as of Friday.
Ahmed Ejaz rides the No. 20 bus every day between his home in Catonsville and his job at a downtown Baltimore convenience store, where the 52-year-old relieves the overnight clerk each morning, he said.
Under BaltimoreLink, the route will become LocalLink 78, which will end short of downtown at the West Baltimore MARC Station, requiring passengers to transfer to one of four high-frequency color-coded CityLink routes that will run every 10-15 minutes. The adjustment is one of several intended to lower wait times by shortening some of the system's longest routes and avoiding downtown traffic congestion.
Ejaz's bus ride into the city on U.S. 40, Old Frederick Road and Baltimore Street takes about an hour each way, he said. He he has little faith that adding a transfer will make the trip quicker.
"Already you're wasting time standing at a bus stop," he said. "They're making life a little more difficult."
Even routes that remain the same will undergo name changes, a branding move intended to distinguish high-frequency CityLink routes from the local and express buses. The name changes alone could cause headaches for longtime riders who have their route numbers memorized, said Terry Daye, 49, of East Baltimore, who usually rides the No. 23, 26 and 40 buses.
"Now you've got to worry about colors, numbers, numbers, colors," he said.
Ronald Jackson, 64, a bus rider who lives near St. Agnes Hospital, understands others' anxieties about BaltimoreLink but thinks they're overblown. The overhaul is long overdue, he said.
"Most people ain't open to change," Jackson said. "It's going to move people around faster."
The MTA will spend the final week before the launch finishing a marketing and education campaign designed to "try to make sure every rider is aware of what's going on," Quinn said. Street teams will be dispatched across the system, and advertisements and media interviews are planned.
"That public outreach piece is really big for us right now," he said.
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Teresa Hall, 64, gives herself three hours to commute by bus to a job at Marshall's in Westview Mall. She lives near Druid Hill Park and either takes a bus from Mondawmin or Penn North, depending on the day.
She anticipates the new system creating confusion, but she's confident she'll figure it out.
"Give me two, three days," she said. "I'll get it."
The Maryland Transit Administration is offering two weeks of free bus service for the launch of its BaltimoreLink route overhaul — an incentive to try the new system that will also ensure riders aren't penalized if they get on the wrong bus. The route makeover, which goes into effect on Sunday, is built around 12 color-coded, high-frequency "CityLink" lines, designed to increase reliability and better connect the system to jobs, transit and other destinations.