Free-for-all on the MTA


Passengers using mass transit yesterday looked especially satisfied. Even a bit smug. Almost as if they had gotten away with something, which, in a way, they had.

Across Baltimore, bus, subway, light rail and commuter rail service was free. It was "Free Ride Day," compliments of the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, which wanted to celebrate National Try Transit Week and, meanwhile, pick up a few new riders.

But it was largely regular riders, those who climb on board every day and ride to work or school, who seemed the beneficiaries. For them, one of life's daily hassles - fumbling for change or ticket money - had disappeared.

"I can buy a pack of cigarettes today," said 51-year-old James Moore, arms raised in celebration as he waited for a subway. He works overnight shifts in Westminster, got dropped off downtown by his company's shuttle bus and was poised to pay $3 for a daily MTA pass. Now, he had $2.99 for his choice brand of smokes.

Richard Brash, a computer programmer on his morning routine, riding the 7:40 a.m. bus from Catonsville to Baltimore, put it this way: "It's one of life's little surprises, like going up to a soda machine, and there's a soda sitting there. Well, that's neat."

Ridership numbers were not available last night, but MTA officials and passengers said light rail lots had more cars than usual, buses and trains were more crowded, and, based on morning numbers, nearly 10 percent more riders than usual were passing through turnstiles in the metro subway stations.

Folks who don't regularly use MTA did so yesterday, even if only for a little sightseeing. David Carter and Levern Riley, neighborhood friends from the Greenmount section of Baltimore, were aboard the 3:25 p.m. MARC commuter train bound for Washington, D.C. - "Just to take a little trip" on a day when fares were waived, said Carter.

Added Riley: "We decided to get out of town and do a little sightseeing. Maybe there will be something to make us spend more money on our next trip."

Daycare provider Helene Stewart took the three children she watches after school on their first train ride - a light-rail trip from downtown Baltimore to BWI Airport. She wanted to show them the planes, but "they're more interested in the ride," she said.

"This is the quietest I've seen them," she said, while 5-year-olds Sylvester Bradshaw and Rayshard Jackson pressed their faces to the train's window.

The MTA has been holding parties and promotions all week in various stations to thank regular passengers and attract new ones. The agency paid for an airplane to fly over PSINet stadium on Sunday during the Ravens-Jaguars game, carrying a message to fans that they should try transit.

"Anytime you create a buzz, or create an atmosphere where people are talking about your service," said MTA spokesman Anthony Brown, "you're sending a strong marketing message."

One new rider yesterday was Brenda Knill. The Woodbine resident heard an MTA radio promotion Tuesday, called the radio station, and won a pair of MTA sunglasses, a weekly MTA pass and a ride on light rail yesterday from BWI to Camden Yards.

"I've never been comfortable with the public transportation thing," Knill said. In fact, her only recent experience was a ride on the Metro subway in Washington, D.C. "And it was creepy because of the underground part of it."

Knill said she enjoyed light rail, praising it most for being above-ground. Unfortunately, the MTA doesn't provide convenient service from her home in Woodbine to her job near BWI. "But I have a little boy who loves trains," Knill said, so she plans to take him on occasional light-rail rides.

Not all regular riders were impressed. Said Saul Ford, 51, "I've already got a weekly pass. It's not doing me any good."

Much of the MTA system runs under capacity. For example, 50,000 passengers ride the subway daily between Owings Mills and Johns Hopkins University Hospital, but MTA officials said they could increase ridership by 20,000 without adding any trains. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said he wants to double mass transit ridership by 2020. Currently, 350,000 people use the services daily.

"It's a system we know we can squeeze more capacity out of," said John D. Porcari, Maryland's secretary of transportation, who called yesterday's free rides one step among many to win over new customers. Porcari added that the MTA wanted to offer a gesture to regulars who use buses and trains as part of their daily grind.

It meant a lot to Tashima Baylor, a 24-year-old mother of two from Catonsville who spends each morning taking her 7-year-old son by bus to school, her 9-month-old son by light rail to her mother's house, and herself by light rail to classes at Villa Maria School in Baltimore County.

Baylor had planned to spend $6 on two daily MTA passes, for herself and her older son, money that would now be spent on socks for her younger child and notebook paper for the older boy.

"I was very excited," said Baylor, who planned to ride a bus to Wal-Mart to buy the socks and paper.

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