Time for Carroll to get on the bus

The Baltimore Sun

Outside the Owings Mills Metro station are several bus bays that have been there since it opened in 1987. When they were built, the idea was that they would accommodate future bus service feeding into the Metro from places farther north - such as Carroll County.

According to Metro chief Ralign Wells, the bus bays have gone unused for 20 years. I dug deep into The Sun's clips to learn why.

It seems the good folks of that county were horrified at the idea of mass transit. They feared it would bring all kinds of bad people from Baltimore up to the bucolic country - ready to pillage and plunder.

The last time transit service for Carroll County was raised in any kind of serious way was in the late 1990s. It went nowhere. Mass transit became the bogeyman of Carroll politics.

Henry Kay, an MTA deputy administrator who served a previous stint at the agency during the 1990s, said there's been no demand from Carroll for bus service.

"Carroll County has grown rapidly in the past couple of decades, but my sense is it's people who are looking after a kind of rural lifestyle and remoteness," he said.

But so many people have migrated to Carroll that it's not all that rural or remote anymore. The traffic on Route 140, Route 30, Liberty Road and Interstate 795 often looks like a minor league version of Los Angeles. The country's population is projected to grow by 55 percent by 2035 - the fastest rate in the Baltimore region.

It might just be time for Carroll County to look at mass transit in a new light.

No, not a rail line. That'll be a nonstarter for decades. And not those nasty, fume-belching buses many Carroll residents remember from their long-ago days in the city they escaped.

We're talking clean, modern commuter buses - with plush seats, limited stops and restroom facilities in the back. They don't even have to carry the MTA logo. Much of the commuter bus service around Maryland is operated by private companies under contract to the MTA.

Long-distance commuting is increasingly a fact of life in formerly rural parts of Maryland. In many of those communities - St. Mary's, Calvert and Charles counties in Southern Maryland, Kent Island, Hagerstown and Frederick - commuters have discovered the advantages of riding such buses and jumping on a subway.

Riders can catch up on sleep, make friends, read, work on their laptops and generally spare themselves the grind of the rush hour crawl. They save money on gas and pollute the air a little less. Long-distance commuters love the modestly priced service.

But not in Carroll County. Like all Marylanders, Carroll residents pay taxes to subsidize those services, but they get none of the benefits. That's not conservative, that's goofy.

As much as many in Carroll would like to deny any relationship to the City of Wickedness, some 6,477 of its residents were working in Baltimore in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. A fair number of them drive to the Owings Mills Metro stop, leave their cars and continue into downtown.

Why not give these good folks the option of jumping on a bus in Westminster, Eldersburg, Manchester or Hampstead and letting someone else fight the traffic? Maybe after making a Metro connection, the buses could continue on to Woodlawn to drop off people who work at Social Security. Then on to BWI, with its many jobs and MARC connection.

But wouldn't this bring an influx of street crime to Carroll?

Not likely. Most of MTA's commuter bus routes take people to the big city in the morning and back to their homes at night with no midday service. Few undesirables will want to stay overnight in Westminster or Hampstead, where there's hardly anything undesirable to do.

There's another reason to put mass transit back on the table. When the MTA's Metro system opens its new 2,900-car garage at Owings Mills this month, it will clear the current surface lots around the station for transit-oriented development. The area will become a huge employment center, not just a transfer point, and many of the people who fill those jobs will want to settle their families in the sprawling subdivisions of Carroll County.

If these folks don't have the option of hopping on a bus at a park & ride lot, they and their cars will be joining the fun on I-795 and 140 and 30 every weekday morning.

Kay says the MTA isn't scratching to get into new markets. But if Carroll County's elected officials want to talk, the MTA is willing to listen.

Here's a modest suggestion to Carroll officials: Go to Hagerstown or Frederick early some morning and talk to the commuters waiting to catch the bus to the Shady Grove Metro stop in Montgomery County. Ask what they think of the service. Call up your counterparts in Southern Maryland and ask if their constituents want to get rid of their buses to Washington.

They'll quickly learn why the state - under a Republican governor - significantly expanded those services.

Harvey Bloom, the transportation planning director at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, said he thinks that folks in Carroll may be more receptive to the concept of transit than they were in the 1990s.

"People are tired of congestion," he said. "I think the political atmosphere might be a little different."

Let's hope so. Our tax money built those bus bays. Leaving them empty is a waste.



Michael Dresser's column archive at baltimoresun.com/dresser

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