Continuing its politically touchy overhaul of metropolitan Baltimore's bus system, the Maryland Transit Administration is proposing to make extensive changes to nearly two dozen routes this summer without going through a new round of public hearings.
The proposed revisions would come as the second phase of what the MTA calls its Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative - an ambitious restructuring plan first released last spring.
The first phase, implemented in October, has had a rocky start, with many riders complaining that service on their routes has deteriorated. Last week, the MTA announced plans to revamp the schedules, routes and frequency of service on several troubled lines Feb. 5.
As he has done since launching the initiative, Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan characterized the changes planned for June 11 as "improvements." He said about 44,500 riders would see better service on their routes, while "roughly 46" would have their rides eliminated.
"For every one person seriously affected, we have 1,000 who are getting improved service. These are the kinds of decisions that you have to make to improve public transit if you're serious about it," Flanagan said.
The transportation chief, who has made the bus-service restructuring one of his key initiatives, said the changes in the second phase will be "cost-neutral."
Transit advocate Ed Cohen said that though some routes might benefit from increased service frequency, the second phase appears to represent an overall reduction.
"This is not positive. This is a continuation of the deconstruction of the Baltimore bus system so nobody will ride it except the poor," said Cohen, president of the Transit Riders Action Council.
For some riders, the proposed changes would eliminate service on parts of their routes. In several of those cases, the cutbacks were proposed last spring but postponed after public outcry last summer.
Among the neighborhoods or employment centers that would lose bus service are Coldspring Newtown, Riviera Beach, Violetville Industrial Park, Marshfield Industrial Park and Joppa Heights.
Cohen said the places that could see diminished service - and more transfers - under the plan include Remington, Cherry Hill, Mount Washington, Reservoir Hill, Towson, Wabash Avenue, Joppa Road and Loch Raven Boulevard. State transportation officials said they disagreed.
Flanagan said the summer schedule changes will be introduced without formal public hearings but after a series of less formal meetings with communities. A series of hearings last summer on the original bus initiative turned into a conspicuous venting of public anger that prompted Flanagan to retreat from many of the MTA's original proposals - only some of which have resurfaced in Phase 2.
Dan Pontious, policy director for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said it is a mistake for the MTA to bypass a new round of formal public hearings. He noted that on some routes, the MTA is proposing changes that weren't part of the original initiative. "These changes are so involved and so complex, to say they've already held hearings on them is just not true," he said.
Flanagan dismissed the call for hearings, saying the MTA could communicate more effectively with the public in other settings.
"There are some people who are so into the process that we could be [caught up] in an eternal round of public hearings before we would ever improve and rationalize the service," he said.
Cohen said the lack of public hearings could raise legal issues, but Flanagan insisted that no formal sessions are needed because this round of changes arises from last summer's hearings.
While insisting that most affected riders have seen improvements since Phase 1 was introduced in October, Flanagan acknowledged that the MTA has had problems with keeping on schedule on several restructured routes. Riders have complained that they wait for long periods with no bus, only to have two or three arrive at once.
Flanagan put the blame for the problems in implementing Phase 1 on the General Assembly, saying budget cuts by the Democratic-controlled legislature had left the MTA without enough supervisors to keep the buses on schedule.