Shifting gears on mass transit

The Baltimore Sun

When gas prices were clunking along in the low 3-buck-something range, mass transit didn't seem nearly as interesting as it does now. For the vast majority of us, the idea of sharing the commuting experience with strangers was as remote as planting our own tofu trees.

But with a gallon of go-juice on the north side of $4, the Maryland Transit Administration is getting more attention from this column and its readers. And rightly so. By the time this run-up ends, we may all be customers.

A column two weeks ago examining the peculiarities of the MTA Web site's new trip planner - now in a very public form of beta testing - grabbed the attention of readers, including Ronald Pearl of Pikesville. He decided to try it.

My query didn't produce as convoluted a route as yours did, but mine did have one very special quirk. I live in Pikesville, and work at Charles and Cold Spring. Upon entering my address and destination, I was given three options: The second and third options involved only the bus system, while the first utilized the Metro as well - and there lies the rub.

I was directed to walk seven minutes to the Sudbrook Tunnel, and board the Metro there. I know where the tunnel is, and believe me, it is a tunnel. No stop, no station. Is this something new? Can I flag down a Metro train by standing by the tracks? Is there a special hand signal? Or do they assume I want to board the train because I am standing in knee-deep weeds at the entrance to the tunnel? Other than that, the trip planner works like a charm.

And they wonder why we drive everywhere?

That's a good one. Part of me wants to tell you to go down to the tunnel entrance and stop the train by dancing like Steve Martin doing King Tut. But then there's that chance that some literalist would take me seriously enough to qualify for mummy-hood. Therefore, IMPORTANT LEGAL DISCLAIMER: No Tutting at the tunnel.

(You could try walking like a duck, though.)

Anyway, Ron, your observation of this glitch has been received at high levels at MTA and passed along to its partners in Google Transit. It seems the tunnel is a landmark for purposes of schedule-keeping, but the program registers that as a stop. I'm sure they'll get it right with help such as yours. Let's be patient and hold off on such cheap, un-called-for, bad-taste jokes as: What do you call a cross between Google and a boondoggle?

When gas hit $4, Doug Wittich of Perry Hall was inspired to check the trip planner and looked at the scheduled service to Hunt Valley. He found the information accurate but disappointing.

The real disappointment is that I'm spending about $8 on gasoline to get to work and home. It takes me about 20 to 25 minutes one way, and I can drink my coffee while I drive.

The MTA solution takes two hours, costs about $4.30 round trip (I have to pay express fees for the #15 bus) and I can't have coffee while in the coach. The real issue here is that it costs me over 3 hours a day to save two gallons of gasoline, but only saves me $4. This, to me, is not a wise tradeoff.

Compound this with the additional issue that the light rail is currently stopping at Timonium Fairgrounds (due to construction on the tracks at Warren Road) and I'd have to take a shuttle bus the rest of the way to Hunt Valley. ... The really sad part is that my office is right next to a light rail station.

It is a sad fact of life that mass transit just isn't for everyone. It's not the fault of the MTA. Some destination pairs will never make sense - and Perry Hall and Hunt Valley are a good example. But the fact a guy from Perry Hall who works in Hunt Valley is even thinking about it tells you something.

Aaron Meisner of Mount Washington got his hopes up for taking light rail to the BWI business district station and catching Howard Transit's Silver Line to his job in downtown Columbia.

It's 35 minutes by car, and I thought this would be great, even at twice that amount of time. So I figure a 10-minute walk to the Mount Washington light rail. What, maybe 40 minutes to BWI? And then 25 minutes to Columbia.

A quick check of the Howard Transit bus schedule kills that idea - one hour and 25 minutes on the bus. Five hours of commuting time? Gas suddenly seems pretty cheap at 4 bucks.

The Silver Route is a little-known gem among the state's transit resources - connecting Baltimore and Columbia seven days a week. And it serves a hard-working population that can't afford to complain about commuting times - people who live in the city and labor in the office parks and shopping centers of Columbia. But as a connection to Columbia Mall, it's devilishly slow.

If Howard Transit ever has the resources, it would be wonderful if it could add a Silver Express route going directly from the light rail to the Columbia Mall. Google, which is better at roads than transit, estimates the trip at 23 minutes - letting a single bus make an hourly loop. It's not the fast rail needed in this corridor, but it could hold its place for the next couple of decades.

Last week's column on commuter bus routes - and the mortal fear they strike into the hearts of some in Carroll County - brought this from Neil M. Ridgely of Finksburg:

When I first moved here there were still Klan meetings in Gamber and a bar under the Bagel Shop in Westminster that closed rather than integrate.

I've run for County Commissioner twice as a progressive Democrat. Unsuccessfully - no wonder - although land use, not race, was the major topic in each campaign.

Mass transit in Carroll County is just code for "them people," meaning anybody other than us Anglo-Saxons. It's a hard place to adjust to. Some never do make the adjustment after as many as 30 years.

Give yourself another 30, Neil, and maybe you'll fit in.


Find Mike Dresser's column archive at dresser

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