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Gas costs demand different solutions

The Baltimore Sun

This column has never received a more heated reaction than the time it modestly suggested that the bus bays at the Owings Mills Metro station could be put to productive use receiving commuter buses from Carroll County.

From the response, you would have thought I had proposed locating a toxic waste landfill in downtown Westminster. Many Carroll residents wrote in to threaten to take to the barricades at the first sign that the dreaded mass transit would intrude on their pristine county.

Never mind that commuter buses - comfortably equipped and run by private contractors - would merely take commuters to the Metro in the morning and return them in the evening. The fear of "undesirables" squelched any consideration of benefits in gas savings and congestion relief.

That column ran Aug. 13, 2007, when the national average price of regular gas stood at a whopping $2.77 a gallon. Last week, it hit $4.04 and was still rising.

I was reminded of the potential of commuter buses recently when the Maryland Board of Public Works approved the addition of 13 long-distance bus runs to alleviate overcrowding on the state's popular lines.

The new bus runs - serving Western Maryland, Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore - had one thing in common: The destination, in each case, was Washington or its Metro system.

Metropolitan Baltimore got zero, zippo, zilch.

Some might blame the Maryland Transit Administration for this turn of events, but the MTA had good reason to favor Washington lines. That's where the overcrowding has been happening. And that's where the squeaky wheels were squeaking.

Baltimore's long-distance commuters have been far slower to take to buses - though the MTA has long operated lines connecting the city with Laurel, Ellicott City, Columbia and Harford County. Perhaps it's because downtown Baltimore parking is less costly than in Washington - though it's plenty high. Perhaps it's because the congestion isn't as brutal as that around Washington. Or maybe there aren't enough departures to ensure flexibility.

But $4 gas ought to be enough to get some folks thinking about whether it's worthwhile to expand service to Baltimore and its underused Metro and light rail connections.

The MTA, to its credit, is looking at possible new - and restored - commuter routes.

Topping the list is the possible reintroduction of commuter bus service from Kent Island and Annapolis - eliminated in the Ehrlich administration's bus route restructuring of 2005. In the summer of 2005, with gasoline hovering around $2.25, the MTA came up with the idea of dropping its old Route 210. With today's gas prices, that move looks less than prescient.

Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator of planning, also said recently that the MTA is looking at possible service between Frederick and Baltimore, and an expansion of service from Harford County to Towson and the Canton-Fells Point waterfront.

That's a good start. But it's not where the planning should stop.

Ed Cohen, the outgoing president of the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore, said it would be "goofy" not to consider an even broader expansion of commuter bus service.

"It's not as if the service did not exist in the past," he said, noting that in bygone years private companies provided rides from such far-flung locations as, er, Carroll County.

Cohen suggested that four routes could be created to roll through Carroll and feed into the Owings Mills Metro station: one from Sykesville to Owings Mills, one starting at Thurmont and stopping at Union Bridge and Westminster, one starting at Emmitsburg and stopping at Taneytown along Route 140, and another coming from Gettysburg and Hanover, Pa., and providing service along clogged Route 30.

Cohen also suggested a serious look at service along the Interstate 83 corridor, where commuter service once linked Parkton and Baltimore. Certainly there are enough Pennsylvanians pouring down I-83 each morning from such commuter havens as York and Shrewsbury to fill a bus to the Hunt Valley light rail station and downtown.

Why not have a talk with Pennsylvania officials about how much they'd be willing to kick in for such service?

"The Pennsylvanians are using the highway in Maryland right now," Cohen said.

Surely there must be people in other commuting corridors who would welcome a chance to leave their vehicles in a local park-and-ride, and then snooze the rest of the way to Baltimore. How about a Bowie-Crofton-BWI-Baltimore run? Anyone in Mount Airy or Lisbon want off Interstate 70?

However you look at it, $4 gas has fundamentally changed the commuting equation. And where rail transit or dedicated bus lanes could take years to bring on board, commuter bus lines could be expanded before gas reaches $5.

Let's open up this discussion to one and all. What kind of long-distance commuter bus routes would you propose for Baltimore and other parts of Maryland? What would it take to induce you to hop aboard?

It's a game everyone can play. Even folks from Carroll County.

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