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Transit proposal would connect workers and jobs


An East Baltimore group wants to shuttle as many as 500 city workers to entry-level jobs in Howard County's booming U.S. 1 industrial corridor, thereby bridging the transportation gap between growing suburban jobs and city workers without transportation.

The proposal by Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition Inc. is welcomed by Howard County employers long vexed by the problem of finding workers for lower-wage jobs in a county with Maryland's highest housing costs.

That problem is aggravated by inadequate public transportation between the city and Howard's industrial corridor.

"The suburbs are where many of the entry-level jobs have gone, but the city is where there is a ready pool of workers willing to accept those low-wage jobs. The bridge between the two is reliable, convenient transportation," said Scot T. Spencer, the group's fiscal development director.

His group hopes to win $2.5 million from a nonprofit group in Philadelphia to be used to buy vans to shuttle between workers' homes and their jobs, many in Howard County.

Howard's U.S. 1 industrial corridor is home to thousands of entry-level warehouse, packing and distribution positions, paying an average of $6 to $8 an hour.

The coalition estimates that as many as 14,000 people in East Baltimore need jobs, he said.

"People living in the inner city don't mind working, but we believe you have to offer them a living wage and a convenient way to get there," Mr. Spencer said.

One U.S. 1 corridor employer -- Richard Nelson, president of the mid-Atlantic region for office supply giant Corporate Express -- says many area employers could use the city workers. His company even boosted warehouse wages 30 percent this year to lure more applicants from the city, he said.

"Transportation has definitely been a factor in our ability to tap that city's labor market, particularly for our evening and night shifts," he said. "We have had real problems filling some of our warehouse and driver jobs because people . . . have difficulty getting here."

The Maryland Transportation Authority operates one limited-service bus line -- known as the Laurel Flyer -- between Baltimore and the major industrial parks in Elkridge, Jessup and Laurel during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

Also, there's no shuttle bus service from the county's four Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) train stops to the U.S. 1 industrial corridor. Several executives of U.S. 1 companies say the state or county should arrange for such service.

At least 20 companies in the U.S. 1 area operate 24 hours a day, county officials say, offering the opportunity for overtime wages to those with their own transportation.

Joyce Borah is among those missing out on that income.

Every workday, she makes the long trek by public transportation to her $6.50-an-hour job as a packer for a computer software distributor in the Corridor Industrial Park, just off U.S. 1 near Laurel.

Ms. Borah rises at 5 a.m. each workday to board a 6 a.m. bus near her Randallstown home to a Light Rail stop in Baltimore. She then takes Central Light Rail to the State Center on Preston Street, where she boards the Laurel Flyer for the $2.45 trip to the industrial park so she can report to work by 8 a.m.

She doesn't mind the travel so much, she said. But she does wish she had more transportation options -- such as evening bus runs of the Flyer -- so she could work overtime.

Mr. Spencer's group wants to help East Baltimore workers. The nonprofit coalition was started two years ago by the city and Johns Hopkins Hospital to map out a broad plan for revitalizing East Baltimore. It identified suburban job growth around Baltimore -- particularly in Howard -- as full of opportunities.

The coalition is seeking $2.5 million from Public-Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that operates an anti-poverty effort called "Bridges to Work."

That group will decide on the Baltimore proposal in June, said Beth Zelnick-Palubinsky, co-director of Bridges to Work.

The coalition's proposal ultimately involves selecting 1,000 East Baltimore residents for placement in full-time jobs. Half would be placed in jobs in the city; the others in jobs in the suburbs.

The coalition would buy about 15 vans over 18 months to transport workers from their homes or neighborhoods to suburban work sites. The service would require subsides of about $150 per van daily, Mr. Spencer said, even with riders paying $20 weekly. Employers would have to offer full-time jobs with wages of at least $6 an hour and health benefits, he said.

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