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With ridership rebounding, MTA proposes more bus service to Tradepoint Atlantic

The Maryland Transit Administration is proposing to add more bus service to Tradepoint Atlantic and make bus passes more flexible as ridership continues to rebound from the pandemic.

The changes would provide city neighborhoods with more direct access to the growing jobs center in southeast Baltimore County and exchange weekly bus passes with three- and 10-day ticket bundles that could be used on any day over the next year, said MTA chief Kevin Quinn in an interview.

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“We are adjusting to a post-pandemic world where our riders need flexibility and essential employees need to get to jobs, and we’re going to focus on those things,” Quinn said. “As ridership recovers … we’re going to do everything we can to support our riders and support the transit system.”

An MTA bus on Baltimore Street outside University of Maryland Medical Center. MTA has proposed new routes that aim to give riders more direct routes to Tradepoint Atlantic.
An MTA bus on Baltimore Street outside University of Maryland Medical Center. MTA has proposed new routes that aim to give riders more direct routes to Tradepoint Atlantic. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Bus ridership remains about 55% below normal, Quinn said. But it’s rebounding from last year, he said: 30% more passengers boarded in April than in the same month a year ago when the pandemic was new and many employers were shut down.

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More Tradepoint service and the new fare policy are the highlights of the MTA’s proposed fall service adjustments, which would go into effect Aug. 29 after a series of virtual public hearings this month. The changes also would discontinue the Express Bus 164 to Riviera Beach and CityLink Yellow service to Relay, and would reroute the LocalLink 93 to York Road from Warren Road in Cockeysville.

To improve access and reduce travel times to Tradepoint, the MTA wants to split and realign the LocalLink 63 route. Instead of the current route between downtown and Sparrows Point along Eastern Avenue, the 63 would run from Gardenville to Johns Hopkins Bayview to Tradepoint — exchanging downtown and Eastern Avenue service for a direct link to neighborhoods in Northeast Baltimore.

A new Express Bus 163 would provide direct service from the West Baltimore MARC Station to Tradepoint via U.S. 40, interstates 395 and 95, the Fort McHenry Tunnel, Holabird Avenue and Broening Highway. The agency also is proposing to eliminate the 60-cent express fare.

The 63 would continue to run about every 10-15 minutes before and after shift changes at Amazon and about every 30 minutes during off-peak hours, according to the MTA. The extension to Gardenville initially would run once an hour. The Express 163 would offer a similar amount of service, matching up to shift changes, and would operate on nights and weekends, unlike the MTA’s other express bus service.

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New proposed bus routes would help avoid some of the downtown traffic congestion.
New proposed bus routes would help avoid some of the downtown traffic congestion. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

The new routes should improve bus run times by avoiding downtown traffic congestion, said Tom Hewitt, MTA’s director of service development. The alignments were guided by the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance’s 2020 report card and an equity gap analysis by Baltimore City, he said.

Minority households are projected to see a 137% increase in service to Tradepoint, and low-income and zero-vehicle households will see more than 50% more service, Hewitt said.

“These are folks that need service the most,” he said. “We want to get people to jobs.”

In a year when many lost jobs or wages in the Baltimore region, companies at Tradepoint’s sprawling shipping and logistics hub in Sparrows Point hired another thousand workers over the last year to surpass 10,000 jobs. Amazon, FedEx, the Home Depot, Floor & Decor and Volkswagen have opened distribution centers on the redeveloped, 3,200-acre site of the former Bethlehem Steel mill.

But getting to Amazon or FedEx from West Baltimore by bus had been difficult.

The proposed Express Bus 163 — taking the highways and the tunnel — “makes a westside connection more viable and more realistic, given the extended commute times we were seeing,” said Aaron Tomarchio, senior vice president of Tradepoint.

It was the product of many conversations among state, local and business leaders about how to better connect West Baltimore residents to jobs in the region’s burgeoning logistics sector, he said.

“We’re very happy MTA is looking to make these service enhancements for the coming fall,” Tomarchio said. “Having a reliable transit network in place supports employment opportunities for many communities that need access to these jobs, as well as the growth opportunities for our region, to have businesses identify this region as a great market to grow their business.”

Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a rider advocacy group, praised the MTA for improving job access. But he pointed out that more state investment in the agency would allow it to add service without shifting it away from other areas, such as Eastern Avenue.

“These changes are a good thing overall,” O’Malley said. “But the MTA’s having to do this in a cost-neutral fashion. If they had additional resources, they could improve access to jobs more. It’s much more difficult when you have to take away access in one place to add it somewhere else.”

The MTA is hosting four virtual public hearings on the proposed service adjustments. Those are scheduled for 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturday, May 22; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. on Monday, May, 24; and 3-6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 25. Those who want to provide testimony should register in advance by filling out the online form or by calling 410-767-3999.

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