Bus riders still have many questions, concerns about the BaltimoreLink

Riders still have lots of questions about MTA's proposed overhaul of the bus system, and they asked them in quick succession at a community forum held at State Center last night.

A presentation by an MTA official on the new system, called the BaltimoreLink, became more of an open forum, with citizens asking about everything: accessibility, route changes, fares, signage, extending Light Rail service on Sunday, making public transportation more bike accessible, and increasing the use of Charm Cards for payment.

Before and after the presentation, attendees were able to look at maps detailing the system's proposed new routes and ask questions of MTA officials. Near the start of the workshop, two women ran their fingers along a large map of the city displaying the new lines, expressing their concerns over what was missing. An MTA consultant responded: "Right now what we have is inadequate. We're going to fix this."

Attendees were encouraged to leave feedback by either completing a survey on a laptop or filling out a paper questionnaire.

After about an hour, Michael Walk, director of service development for MTA, arrived from Annapolis to present a slide show to the crowd of about 40 people.

One rider was skeptical before Walk even started, leaning toward the woman next to him and saying, "The problem is—the people who do the planning, they don't ride the buses."

Walk then began going through the highlights of "shaking the Etch-a-Sketch" on the old bus map: increasing service area by 18 square miles, reaching 30,000 more people, retaining service for 99 percent of current riders, giving traffic signal priority to buses, increasing the frequency of service.

Soon, hands started popping up.

One man asked why the system seemed reliant on complementing the Charm City Circulator, a free bus funded mostly by the city that could disappear during a round of belt tightening. Walk said MTA is increasing its funding to the Circulator by 50 percent, from $2 million to $3 million.

An elderly man said there are not enough buses in the fleet. He rides the 23 and it "makes sardines feel like they're living in a mansion." Walk said they will be buying 10 new buses as part of the plan, and that eventually 87 more will be purchased to replace the ones that can't be repaired and returned to operation.

One woman asked why the routes can't keep the numbers they have now, drawing applause. A man a few seats away chimed in, "Some of us have been riding the same line for the last 50 years."

Walk said, "What we are trying to do is take a fresh look at how the routes work," adding that the colors and names of the proposed routes are far from finalized.

He later told the crowd: "We need to know what does work for you, what won't work [for] you, and what we did miss. We do need your feedback, and I really do mean it."

Questions persisted.

A man asked about the number of transfers.

There will be some, Walk said, but 78 percent of riders should be able to get to where they're going and make only one transfer.

A younger woman asked about the fares given the likelihood of these transfers. There's a study under way to determine a pay structure, Walk said.

Another woman complained about "ghost buses" that never show up and make her late for work. Walk said 60 drivers are being hired to address this.

With the meeting nearing its scheduled end, Walk had to stop taking questions and skip ahead a few slides. He then outlined the timeline for full implementation, by June 2017, and stressed there would be many more opportunities for public scrutiny.

Though the general mood among the questioners seemed to be apprehension, City Paper spoke with two people after the presentation who were more optimistic about the BaltimoreLink program.

Estelle Carter, 73, who lives near Dunbar High School, said she sometimes gets tired of waiting for a bus to show up and decides to walk. Shortening wait times would make it easier to get around.

"It's something new. And sometimes it takes a little while to get used to something new," she said. "But I think it's something Baltimore and the outer areas need."

Chris Nunn, 30, of Ednor Gardens, had some suggestion for improving the plan, such as better utilizing resources that exist to create the transit hubs that will connect some of the lines. But he said he currently gets around by driving a car, and that BaltimoreLink, with some modifications, could change his mind.

"It would definitely be an improvement," he said.

The co-chair of the MTA's Citizen Advisory Committee, Edward Cohen, 67, of Barclay, is not convinced it will work. He said the committee has concerns about insufficient service, insufficient coverage, and forced transfers that will extend door-to-door commutes to work.

Citing the decrease of lines between the Jones Falls and Perring Parkway, from 60 to 24, Cohen worried there wouldn't be enough buses in the fleet to meet demand.

"The 60 buses are already stranding people on the corner," he said. "It's not enough."

In an interview with City Paper following the workshop, the third of 10, Walk said he was happy with the level of engagement.

The biggest complaint about the current system is reliability, he said, and creating a simpler system with buses running more frequently should address that. He reiterated that the MTA is aware of gaps in the plan—including those brought up in a recent Baltimore Sun article, such as missing lines on Greenmount Avenue, Falls Road, and Eastern Avenue—and working to fix them.

"Change is never easy," he said. "We want to make sure the system we're proposing will work better than the one we have today."

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