Round and round: Riders weigh in on BaltimoreLink plan

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

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.

The MTA is moving ahead with its plan to redesign the entire bus system by 2017, drawing up a new map that connects Baltimore's disparate modes of public transportation and creating 12 new color-coded high-frequency routes that the department hopes will improve service.

But those pitching the program to the public stress their work won't be complete without the input of riders. They say they are 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 (major thoroughfares in the city)—and working to fix them.

"What we are trying to do is take a fresh look at how the routes work," Michael Walk, director of service development for MTA, told the crowd of about 40 people at State Center, later adding, "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."

So far, riders' biggest complaint about the current system is reliability, MTA officials say. The MTA believes that the new routes and a round of staff hires should allow it to run buses more frequently, dropping the wait time at any given stop to 10 minutes in most places.

But some people who have been riding the bus for most their lives are still not entirely ready to switch.

Even before Walk began his presentation, one rider expressed skepticism, 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 the service area by 18 square miles, reaching 30,000 more people, retaining service for more than 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 they will purchase 87 more 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 reiterated that nothing, including names, numbers, and colors, is finalized.

Questioners 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 they are hiring an additional 60 drivers 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 Paul Laurence 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 suggestions for improving the plan, such as better utilizing resources that exist to create the transit hubs that will connect some of the lines. He said he now gets around by driving a car, but that BaltimoreLink, with modifications, could change his mind. "It would definitely be an improvement," he said.

Riders at a workshop held last week in a library in Brooklyn Park, just south of the city, still had concerns. Bill Curtis, 61, of Mid-Govans, attended both workshops to implore planners to think about the system inversely. As designed, the routes work well for getting people from the county to their jobs in the city, he said, but the opposite is not true, citing job opportunities on corridors along Harford Road, Belair Road, and Route 40 East. "From what I see as I ride around just beyond the Beltway, there are jobs that you don't need a degree for," he said. "I'd like to see city people do the work."

Lawanna Elsafty, 54, came up from Annapolis and stayed with a friend to attend the meeting. She's worried her commute will be extended by an hour because of the BaltimoreLink's current design. She rides the 14 bus up from Annapolis to the Patapsco Light Rail station, near her job on Washington Boulevard. The new route terminates at the Cromwell Light Rail stop, meaning she would either have to pay a train fare to go the rest of the way or wait around another hour to catch a different bus. "[Running a bus] every 30 minutes would be fine, but not every hour," she said.

The co-chair of the MTA's Citizens 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 Brooklyn Park workshop, the fourth of 10, Walk explained that, around Christmas, after the last of the workshops, he and other MTA planners and consultants will look at all of the feedback they've received. Using that information and the data they already have on transit patterns, they will begin finding, he said, "an elegant solution that backs up the data and supports the suggestions that we have."

"Most of what people are bringing to our attention are very good points." he said. "We will work hard to get as many of them as we can into the final plan." But, as he told the audience of about a dozen people during the workshop, "We can't make everyone happy-that's the truth of transportation."

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