Two days into the 2018 fall semester, students gathered for lunch at Carroll Community College’s Canteen Cafe, crowding at indoor tables to avoid the 94-degree weather outside.
Friends Joyce Nuñez, 18; Riley Simpson, 16; Rylee Bender, 18; and Bradley Combs, 18, were chatting at a high-top table in between classes.
“I didn’t even know there was a bus,” said Simpson, from Sykesville.
She said she comes to the college with Combs from Sykesville every day. Bender also drives from Sykesville, and Nuñez comes Mount Airy.
None of the four students knew about the Carroll Transit System’s TrailBlazer shuttle that has routes within Westminster, from Eldersburg to Westminster, from Taneytown to Westminster, and within the South Carroll area.
They also said they didn’t know said bus routes were changing on Sept. 10, with a new route added in North Carroll — through Manchester and Hampstead — a second route added to Westminster, and changes to improve other routes.
The changes are being implemented in hopes of getting more passengers on the TrailBlazer, said Crystal Winebrenner, director of operations for Carroll Transit System.
And the new routes are kicking off with two weeks of free ridership starting Sept. 10 so that Carroll’s public transportation users can get familiar with the improvements.
“The Transportation Development Plan called for us having two additional routes — one in Manchester and Hampstead, and one in Westminster,” said Winebrenner. “The reason we decided to look at our routes is they were not user-friendly.”
Elements that play into the user-friendliness of the routes include length of loops, timeliness and bus transfer accessibility, she said.
The new loops are decreasing loop time from an average of 1 hour and 45 minutes to just over an hour. And the system is adding a designated transfer station: the Business & Employment Resource Center, or BERC.
Winebrenner said the fact that the majority of TrailBlazer users are headed to the community college or McDaniel College, shopping centers and senior centers also played into the changes.
The new routes can be found in detail on the website, www.carrolltransitsystem.com.
Carroll Community College
Also dining at the Canteen on Wednesday, Aug. 29, was Sweta Patel, 32, a Manchester resident getting into the groove of a new semester at Carroll.
She said her classes are scheduled from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on most days and she would love to take a bus from her home to the college.
“I think if there was a bus I’d have more time to study,” she said. “I lived 10 years in London and I thought that was easier. You have time for yourself.”
But Patel is not in London anymore, and Carroll County is spread across an expanse of land that is both rural and suburban.
Matthew Bosley, 19, also lives in Manchester. But he lives a 10-minute drive from wherever a future bus might pick him up, so he said driving to Carroll will probably be the most logical way to get there — now and after future changes to routes.
“I drive myself here,” he said. “My house is just out of place. You can’t even get good internet.”
“I have a friend who does take the bus,” said Bosley, “but I think he has to wait here for an hour or two before he can [catch one to] get home.”
On the bus
Outside at the community college’s TrailBlazer stop, Sophie Paparazzo, 17, waited for the next bus to come at 3 p.m. so she could head home after her second day of school.
This was her second day ever taking the TrailBlazer, and when she got onto the 12-seat bus that afternoon, there were only two other passengers.
The old Eldersburg-Westminster route stopped at the community college six times each day — twice per loop — completing about 3 ½ loops per day Monday through Friday.
It looped from Piney Ridge Apartments to the college, to the shopping areas, and back to the college on Aug. 29 — with stops at Carroll at 8:45 a.m., 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:40 p.m., 1:40 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4:15 p.m.
The new route, which will go live on Sept. 10, will get to Carroll almost twice as many times as the previous one.
When Paparazzo got on the bus she sat behind the driver, Kim Derita, and put on her headphones. Across from her sat Tabitha Harmony, 19, with a blanket over her legs.
“I take the bus once a week,” Harmony said. “I spend a lot of time on the bus with my blanket. Sometimes four to five hours. I go to different appointments between Westminster and Eldersburg.”
Harmony suffers from seizures, nightmares and migraines and has been having a lot of tests done, she said. Because it’s been so hot this summer, she’s been taking the bus for the past few months.
When it’s nicer though, she walks the distance, she explained.
Two rows behind her sat Mike Cooper, 44.
“I don’t have a regular ride to work,” he said. “I work overnight at the Eldersburg Walmart. The bus is very reliable. I’m happy with the service and I’m happy with the stops.”
The TrailBlazer stops right outside the store where he works — and even though the route ends by 5 p.m., he doesn’t need to take the bus again until the morning.
“It’s also kind of like a bus tour,” Harmony said. “You can see different landmarks, just cruising around Westminster.”
But even though some passengers like the shuttle, Derita, who has been driving the bus for three years and just started the Eldersburg-Westminster route three months ago, said many riders in Carroll County prefer the door-to-door services.
“I’ve talked to a few of the clients,” she said, “and I’ve heard from them that they don’t like the shuttle routes. It doesn’t get them where they want to get picked up.”
About 23 people have bus passes this fall, according to Winebrenner, but only two of them are for the TrailBlazer shuttle. The other 21 are for door-to-door services. She said looking at where people get door-to-door service helped Carroll Transit System decide where new stops could be added to the various routes.
“We also started looking to see where we had a large amount of people going, and to see what residential communities were heavy in ridership,” said Winebrenner.
The Charles Fisher Building at Carroll Hospital stop was added to the new Westminster Purple route as well as other medical buildings along Washington Road as a result, she said.
“We tried to add even more,” Winebrenner said, “but we were not given permission to add stops there by the property managers.”
Other places are just too far out of the way or the county doesn’t have the resources to add them to the shuttle routes yet, she said. Among those are the Motor Vehicle Administration and the LifeBridge ExpressCare urgent care center.
“And always in residential areas, our clients are always asking us, ‘Why doesn’t the bus come here?’ ” said Winebrenner. “Just right now the ridership isn’t quite there.”
And getting the ridership up is another goal Carroll Transit System has through the route changes.
For those who don’t get door-to-door service, the TrailBlazer offers route deviations up to three-quarters of a mile from designated bus stops. The door-to-door service costs about $1 per mile, and the deviation only adds $1 to the $2 shuttle rate.
But the deviations must be requested at least a day in advance, according to signs posted in in the shuttles.
The Westminster route bus was supposed to get to the Weis Market at 12:20 p.m. on Sept. 5, but it didn’t arrive until 12:32 p.m.
The bus driver, Peggy Stonesifer, explained later that there was a deviation earlier in the loop. A passenger had been dropped off at Denton Drive from the local Shoppers grocery store.
After another deviation, the bus arrived at the Food Lion stop at 1:43 p.m. — 23 minutes later than the scheduled 1:20 p.m. arrival time.
Joanna Smith, 56, sat in the front seat behind the driver and had a couple reusable bags with her, and a walker stowed in the back of the shuttle.
“I usually go to Walmart to get money orders and do my bills,” Smith said. “I also go to the bank, senior center or do my grocery shopping. I go almost every other day.”
She said she’s lived in Carroll County since 1987 and has taken public transportation since 1992. Before that she used to walk everywhere she went: to the soup kitchen, TownMall, everywhere, she said.
Smith doesn’t walk as much as she used to then, but with the closest bus stop to her home at the Sunnybrook Senior Apartments on Frock Avenue, she walks about a half a mile each way with her limited mobility.
On a 94-degree day, Stonesifer didn’t feel comfortable with that.
“They want me to drop her right here,” the driver pointed out the window. “She has to walk up [that hill]. She’s older. She has trouble walking, and in this heat it worries me.
“There are some people who can [walk the distance] that we don’t do this for,” she said. “But for her, we do it. For this heat on hot days — I couldn’t live with myself knowing something happened to her.”
So Stonesifer dropped her off in front of her home.
The Carroll Transit System director of operations later told the Times that Smith had a planned deviation that day.
But for other elderly members of the community, like those who live at Sunnybrook, the bus is a very easy, convenient amenity — with or without deviations.
“It’s a godsend for people like me to go to the grocery store once a week,” said Sarah Runner, a Sunnybrook resident in her 80s who started riding the bus when her car died.
“I thought I’d die before it did,” said Runner laughing. “I hoped I would.”
After using Carroll’s public transportation for two years, she said she wouldn’t make any change to it if she could.
More information on Carroll Transit System, its TrailBlazer shuttle and door-to-door services can be found on the Carroll Transit System website, including the new schedules and stops for each route and contact information for further questions, scheduling door-to-door reservations and deviations.
Carroll Transit System can also be reached by phone at: 410-363-0622 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.