The Maryland Transit Administration is planning to exercise tight control of the agenda today and tomorrow as it holds hearings on the second phase of its restructuring of Baltimore-area bus routes.
The hearings, required by the General Assembly over the objections of state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, will take place today at Coppin State University in West Baltimore and tomorrow at Sojourner-Douglass College on the east side.
MTA officials, apparently concerned that riders will turn out to vent their frustrations over the first phase of the changes or bus service in general, say comments will be limited to the second phase with a limit of three minutes.
"They're only allowed to speak about the proposed changes for this round," said Cheron V. Wicker, an MTA spokeswoman. If speakers start to talk about other bus-system issues, "they'll be directed to bring it back to the topic at hand or yield the podium."
Last year, hearings on the original plan to restructure the bus routes turned into sometimes-angry protests over topics ranging from the proposed changes to rude drivers to bus service in general. But the hearings prompted officials to make changes to the sweeping plan and to break it into two phases.
MTA officials appear determined to keep this round of hearings from generating as much heat. The legislature required the agency to hold a second round of hearings after receiving complaints from riders about the implementation of the first phase.
In an unusual move, the MTA will use Police Chief Douglas DeLeaver as one of its four hearing examiners, Wicker said. Generally, MTA hearings are conducted by relatively low-level employees.
The move could put the MTA in an awkward position because at least one state legislator, Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, plans to show up and talk about the first phase of the initiative - implemented last October and widely criticized by riders.
Gladden said the decision to limit comments to the second round of changes - planned for next year - is "disappointing but not unexpected."
"What is helpful is to hear what the public has to say about the entire bus overhaul," she said.
Sen. Verna L. Jones, lead sponsor of the proposal to require the hearings, said having the police chief help conduct the hearings "sounds like an intimidation tactic."
Jones and Gladden are Baltimore Democrats who represent largely African-American districts.
Wicker said DeLeaver would be there "as an employee of the Maryland Transit Administration and not as chief of police."
Some MTA customers said they plan to turn out to speak out for more service along the route of Northwest Baltimore's M6 line, which was abolished in the first round but restored on a diminished basis this spring. Wicker said people interested in the M6 could fill out comment cards but would not be permitted to address the topic because changes to the line are not in the second phase.
"I'm going to have a problem with that and so will a lot of people," said Mercedes Eugenia, a Howard Park community activist.
While the overall bus initiative remains an issue, some transit activists say the second phase appears much more palatable. The Transit Riders Action Council, which was critical of the first phase, analyzed the second round of changes and concluded that 17 routes would be improved and four would receive worse service.
Chuck Venick, vice chairman of an MTA advisory committee on accessible transportation, said he generally thinks the second phase is "pretty decent."
"Overall, this is not as controversial as the first one," he said.
While sympathetic to the MTA leadership, Venick said he supports the idea of a new round of hearings. "It gives the people a chance to vent and get their feelings out," he said.
The hearings will run from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Today's hearing at Coppin, 2500 W. North Ave., will be in the dining center off Warwick Avenue. Tomorrow's session at Sojourner-Douglass will be in the cafeteria at 200 N. Central Ave.