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Persistent buzz puts MTA on right path

The Baltimore Sun

About 2 1/2 years ago, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees local at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn asked longtime worker Alvin Hackerman to handle complaints about transit issues from his fellow employees.

It's a part-time job Hackerman has taken to with the enthusiasm of a swarm of mosquitoes let loose in a nudist colony. Since then, the 62-year-old designated kvetch has tormented Maryland Transit Administration officials with a constant stream of e-mails criticizing the agency's service on the Metro and the bus routes serving Social Security.

"I'm the transit gadfly," he says merrily. "I'm not supposed to be sweet and lovely. I'm the professional pain in the [posterior]."

Last week, it appeared that this gadfly had buzzed his way to a rare victory for MTA riders.

For weeks Hackerman had sent the MTA a series of e-mails pointing out the difficulty of getting from the Metro from Owings Mills that pulls into the Rodgers Avenue Station at 6:23 a.m. to the connecting M6 bus departing at 6:25 a.m. for Social Security. He peppered agency officials with descriptions of riders having to race past broken escalators and push through crowds to catch the bus.

"I'm neither young nor athletic anymore. I'm an old fat guy who at 6:30 doesn't need to run," he says.

Remarkably, MTA paid attention. In Hackerman's e-mail inbox March 30 was a message from Glenn Litsinger, the agency's manager of the transit information services.

"We took a look at it and decided to change the departure time of the M-6 trip to 6:27 a.m. It is being done as a weekly change effective Monday, April 2, 2007," said Litsinger's terse message.

Now a two-minute change in a bus route is probably not a momentous issue in your world, but any longtime MTA observer can tell you such a response was akin to a breach in the Berlin Wall.

Here was the MTA - where managers have long appeared to view riders as The Enemy - listening to a reasonable suggestion from a critic and making a customer-friendly change.

It seemed too good to be true. And when last Monday arrived, it was.

The day the change was to have taken effect, Hackerman fired off a message to Litsinger and all the other recipients of his transit-related e-mail (including The Sun), reporting that the driver of that Monday's 6:25 a.m. M6 hadn't been informed of the schedule change.

Litsinger was then treated to a fresh new blast of sarcasm and vitriol.

Hackerman said the only change he found was a transit supervisor telling the M6 driver not to open the doors of the bus after beginning to pull away to let riders running from the train to hop aboard "BECAUSE IT MIGHT CAUSE SOMEONE TO RUN TO CATCH A BUS [and] FALL AND HURT THEMSELVES AND SUE THE MTA!"

(Hackerman has a bad habit of using capitals to SHOUT at people.)

"Once again the MTA is showing how rider friendly it is, by making it harder to catch a bus because the time lines are not set up right or actually make-able to people trying to get to work on time!!" he lectured Litsinger. "So they send out the troops and make sure that if that bus pulls off too bad for you trying to catch it and punish a driver that tries to be responsive to riders."

In suggesting changes to the M6 schedule, Hackerman was advocating on his own behalf. But he is also a persistent advocate on behalf of his people - peppering MTA's designated flak-catchers over buses that don't show up at their appointed times, handicapped Social Security employees left stranded, broken escalators at Metro stations, drivers who don't know their routes and other all-too-common lapses.

His e-mails come in with excruciating detail on the precise times buses arrive, calls are answered and calls are dropped.

"I re-called the Transit information line at approximately 6:50 pm to ask about the train delays, and again I was put on hold. While waiting I noticed that it was getting nearer to 7:00 pm (the closing time for the information line) when the line went dead! They hung up on me without ever coming back on the line," Hackerman wrote Feb. 21.

When you read this barrage of e-mails to MTA officials, it's hard not to feel sympathy for the beleaguered bureaucrats. But then, this is the MTA.

Agency spokeswoman Holly Henderson said last week that the failure to implement the change on time was the result of a "minor lag" in distributing the schedule change. She said that has been fixed.

Henderson also said that calls to the MTA's call center (410-539- 5000) are monitored and that the agency's policy is that all calls should be answered by a person within a minute. If the front-line operator doesn't help, the caller can appeal to a supervisor at 410-468-4807, she said.

But Henderson also acknowledged that the MTA's computerized telephone system turns off precisely at 7 p.m. and disconnects any callers still holding. Great way to run a business.

Anyway, Hackerman reports that on Friday morning, the MTA got it right and that the M6 bus was on its new schedule. But he'll be watching today to make sure it stays on track.

"They've got a whole weekend to screw it up for Monday," he says.

And if it does, the MTA will be hearing about it from Alvin Hackerman. Again and again, for as long as it takes.

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