An overdue overhaul of MTA bus routes


EVERY DAY, hundreds of Maryland Transit Administration buses travel the streets of the Baltimore region. On a typical weekday, they carry more than 250,000 people to jobs, school, errands, church. Buses and their drivers do their jobs with little fanfare or notice by everyone else. But MTA's planners are attracting attention by proposing the most comprehensive changes to the system since it entered public management in the 1960s.

It's about time.

According to state law, the bus system must keep its costs and fares in balance so that riders pay for at least 40 percent of operating costs. While this accountability reassures legislators, it requires agency managers to run an operation so lean that in order to serve new areas, the MTA has had to lengthen existing routes. This has created, over time, a complex and arcane system of branches and route deviations that leave all but the most experienced riders perplexed and intimidated.

The 40 percent law is admittedly arbitrary, but the MTA does not have the latitude to ignore it.

The MTA's existing patchwork system operates without clear performance standards. At any given time, riders on busy lines are standing in the aisles while riders on other lines have only the driver for company. Some branch routes run only once a day, such as the one along Bellona Avenue in Ruxton; the MTA has given up showing it on the schedule.

The MTA wants to correct this problem through what it calls the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative. After spending a year counting riders, the agency has proposed to change virtually every line, including some that have served the same streets since the earliest days of streetcars.

The proposal beefs up service on overcrowded cross-town lines, combines lines that today end downtown to reduce duplication, and eliminates lines and parts of lines that are lightly used.

The MTA says the vast majority of riders will see their service improve, and, if its data are correct, this will be the case. That's cold comfort to people who rely on the services that would be eliminated to get to their jobs, and affected riders turned out in large numbers at public hearings this month. These riders have legitimate concerns, and the MTA should work with them and their employers to address them.

It's very important to business leaders and transit advocates that this restructuring is not simply a ploy to reduce MTA's budget. The administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. assigned MTA a $5 million cut this fiscal year based on the assumption that the restructured system would cost less to operate.

It would have been preferable for the agency to first plan the system the region needs and then decide the size of its budget rather than arbitrarily making a cut that undoubtedly will result in pain and inconvenience to transit-dependent workers.

It is critical for the MTA to listen to transit users and advocates and make adjustments to its plan to ensure that employers and employees who rely on transit are well served.

Nevertheless, the MTA must also stick to its guns and follow through on developing a transit system that will serve a growing regional economy - not just save money.

Bus system restructuring is overdue, and it will take courage and flexibility to craft a proposal that truly improves the system while providing opportunities to expand ridership.

Donald C. Fry is president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

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