Joseph Brooks of East Baltimore talks about the lack of consistency in bus schedules, as he stands at the stop outside University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. (Video by Karl Merton Ferron)
Quincy McCray rides three buses each weekday between his home in Mondawmin and his job at Biomedical Waste Services in Curtis Bay. One Monday morning in late August, he said, one of them never came.
McCray, 41, said he resorted to spending $30 on a hack — an unlicensed taxi — to get to work. He called the Maryland Transit Administration to ask what happened.
"They said the bus schedule changed," he said. "They never put it up or posted nowhere that it was going to change. It just changed."
The administration routinely tweaks its bus schedules, but on Aug. 28 it cut the frequency of bus service on 22 of the city's 51 routes with little warning. The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group for riders, found that the cutbacks reduced service on those routes by an average of 11 percent and resulted in longer wait times on 14 of the affected routes in the morning, evening or both ways.
The service reductions were separate from Gov. Larry Hogan's impending $135 million BaltimoreLink bus system overhaul, but advocates and bus riders worry that cutbacks and poor communication don't bode well for the June launch of a completely redesigned network.
About three weeks before the cuts, the MTA created a page on its website announcing that service was changing on those routes. It posted notices in buses and at stops 16 days before.
The August changes were "larger-than-usual, minor service changes to more lines than we usually do," said Kevin Quinn, director of the MTA's office of planning and programming.
Those adjustments were based on an MTA analysis of regular ridership patterns, Quinn said.
After implementing the August changes, the MTA surveyed riders and learned they wanted better communication of scheduling adjustments, which, Quinn said, occur about three times a year. That explains why the MTA announced another round of seasonal service changes on Wednesday that will take place in February. Those will restore some service to several of the lines that were pared back in August.
"What we realized is we need to provide a lot of notice to people," Quinn said.
After the August cuts occurred, the transportation alliance scrambled to determine their effect. The group couldn't find a release about the changes and the MTA simply replaced the old schedule with the new one, making it difficult to see how the wait times had changed, said Brian O'Malley, the alliance president.
"Luckily we had some of the old schedules in the office," O'Malley said. "We asked around and some of our partners had others, and we were able to get our hands on all of them."
A side-by-side comparison of the schedules before and after the changes showed the largest cut in service — 18 percent — to the No. 58, he said. It runs 30 fewer times per week than it used to, O'Malley said. Wait times doubled on the route between Reisterstown Plaza and White Marsh from 30 minutes to an hour during the evening rush.
The No. 52 bus, which runs between Mondawmin Metro Subway Station and Milford Mill, was scaled back by 75 runs per week, a 12 percent cut, he said.
Even with the restoration of some service in February, all of the affected routes will remain at a lower level of service than before the August cuts, the alliance said.
Joe Brooks, 62, rides the bus daily between his job as a maintenance worker at St. Agnes Hospital and his home in East Baltimore. He said he's never seen so many buses running late, while others pass by, out of service, two and three at a time.
"I don't know what they've done, or how they do it, or what they're going to do to improve it, but they need a big improvement," Brooks said. "Maybe this BaltimoreLink will improve it. But they've got to do something, seriously."
On a recent cold morning at Mondawmin station, Wyonetta Johnson, 72, of East Baltimore, glared at her No. 5 bus, which idled with its doors closed to passengers as the driver took a break.
"Our bus drivers don't realize it's a service-driven job," she said. "It's cold out here. She's on there; why can't people be?"
The customer service problems extend beyond the drivers to the MTA itself, Johnson said.
"I think they should ask people before they change the systems," she said. "Maybe they asked people, but I didn't see it."
The MTA is seeking rider feedback for the BaltimoreLink overhaul, which the MTA has described as a "haircut" for the bus system, driven by years of complaints about inefficiency and constant lateness. It's designed to cut out underused bus stops and shorten some lines to make them run faster and more on time.
The system's overhaul was announced after Hogan canceled the long-anticipated Red Line, an east-west light rail line, citing its $3 billion cost.
The administration released a third version of the BaltimoreLink plan earlier this month, and scheduled another 14 public hearings about it for Jan. 4-19. After a 30-day comment period, the final plan will be released in late February or early March, allowing the MTA more than three months to educate the public on how the new, color-coded system will work, Quinn said.
In addition to usual measures such as notices at bus stops and information cards on the buses, the administration plans to dispatch a street team of roughly 50 or 60 people to ride the buses and talk to passengers about the BaltimoreLink route changes, he said.
The changes have already been revised several times after public input. Route cuts that drew loud criticism from riders in Canton and North Baltimore, for example, were readjusted to accommodate those riders.
"We listened and we tried to make those changes where it made the most sense," Quinn said.
Bus Workgroup14, a group of North Baltimore bus riders convened last year by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, has been successful in renegotiating "the most onerous proposed route changes in our district," the group said in a statement. Members remain concerned about frequency, the need for more transfers and poor reliability.
"Without greater investment by the state, the bus service will continue be unreliable," it said.
Reliable buses are critical for staff at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, said Clinton Ramsundar, vice president of property management and facilities of Broadway Services, which provides security, parking, transport and other services at the hospital.
"They rely on buses and other public transportation to get them to work safely and on time, which is crucial to Medical Center operations," Ramsundar said. Patients, he noted, use the bus system, too.
Don Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of business and civic leaders, said business executives across the city are keeping a close watch on the BaltimoreLink plans.
"How do you connect the worker community to employment hubs, and do it in an efficient manner?" Fry said. "That's what we look for more than anything else."
David McClure, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, which represents bus drivers and other employees, delivered a petition Wednesday to the MTA's downtown Baltimore headquarters against the BaltimoreLink plan, instead requesting more investment. Cutting back on service won't make the bus system better, he said.
"If you have 20 stops and you eliminate 10 of them, sure, you're going to get across town quicker, but you're not providing a service for the riding public," McClure said. "That's not efficient and effective for the riding public."
Quinn said 46 of the bus stops slated for removal have zero riders per day, and others have only a few. All of those stops are within a few blocks of another one, he said.
"We're not just blanketly removing bus stops," he said. "Yes, we will create a more efficient service by not stopping at stops where there are no riders."
This story has been updated to reflect accurate information about when the MTA posted notices about the August bus service changes.