The buses are slow. The drivers are rude. The routes are too long. Riders are packed in like sardines.
Familiar complaints about Baltimore's bus system received a public airing Monday as the Maryland Transit Administration heard from riders, advocates, elected officials and others to discuss city transit after Gov. Larry Hogan's cancellation of the Red Line light rail in June.
More than 100 people gathered in the Locust Point office of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to suggest changes to a system that is widely regarded as inefficient and unreliable.
Paul Comfort, Hogan's new MTA administrator, promised sweeping improvements in the MTA's performance, even without big-ticket spending projects such as the $2.9 billion Red Line project.
"We're going to bring the MTA into the 21st century," Comfort said. "I want it to be a model. We're clearly not there yet."
Comfort said he's already beginning to make changes. For instance, he said, he's now requiring his managers to measure on-time performance on a daily basis, rather than monthly.
"To me transit is economic development," said Comfort. "It's how you invigorate a city."
Some activists expressed skepticism about Comfort's promises of improvements in light of Hogan's decision to cancel the Red Line and to divert the savings into highway projects around the state. Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn told lawmakers last month that all that money had been dedicated to roads.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Maryland, said the MTA will not be able to improve service without more money.
"It is a lie to say we can do it without another dime," she said. "This region has been shortchanged again and again and again."
The meeting was the second for the MTA's Transit Stakeholder Work Group. Its first was held June 24, the day before Hogan announced the Red Line's demise, and focused on the needs of employers. The group is expected to submit a transit performance improvement plan by Oct. 1.
While Monday's meeting was the first since the Red Line announcement, it appeared most of those present had accepted the decision as final. Most of the comments focused on improvements to the core city bus system in the short term.
Comfort noted that the Baltimore regional bus system serves about two-thirds of the MTA's riders on any given day — much more than its Metro subway, light rail, MARC train and Mobility services.
Joanne Masopust, president of the Fells Point Community Organization, said the "elephant in the room" was the "negative attitudes" of many of the bus drivers. Many, she said, won't answer simple questions.
"If you want to encourage people to rise buses, you have to make sure your bus drivers are more like ambassadors," she told Comfort, Deputy Transportation Secretary James Ports and other state officials.
Marlene Hendler of Columbia, who uses a wheelchair to get around, said some drivers refuse to stop for passengers with mobility problems. Others, she said, won't alert passengers to their stops.
Hendler's complaint prompted Ports to give Hendler his name and email address and urge her to contact him if that happened again.
"We want to know every time," he said.
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But Michael McMillan, an executive board member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, said drivers are held to such a tight time schedule that it's difficult for them to do much except keep driving. He urged the MTA to involve operators in scheduling decisions.
Ed Cohen, acting chairman of the MTA's Citizens Advisory Committee, said the agency needs to buy enough buses to relieve overcrowding.
"We don't want to see anything to attract more riders until we have more vehicles," he said.
Comfort said the Hogan administration is committed to providing a safe, reliable and efficient transit system in the Baltimore region, with better connections to employment centers in the suburbs. He said he believes the MTA will have enough revenue to make those changes.
But Cohen, a veteran transit activist, said he's heard similar assurances from many previous MTA chiefs.
"It doesn't matter what they say," he said. "You look at the budget."