Ehrlich extends study of bus route changes

After an overwhelmingly negative reaction from transit riders, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. ordered yesterday a monthlong extension of the public comment period for a proposed restructuring of Baltimore-area bus routes.

Ehrlich and state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, in one of the administration's highest-profile transit projects, have proposed eliminating routes that serve few riders and altering others to increase efficiency.

Hundreds of riders - many of them elderly or disabled - have packed public meetings over the past few weeks to decry the plans, which they said would wreak havoc on their lives.

Last week, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and the region's county executives asked for more time for public comment and study, and yesterday Ehrlich agreed.

"This is the first comprehensive look at Baltimore's bus system in more than 30 years," Ehrlich said in a press release. "Clearly, people are passionate about transit and they want improvements [in] this bus system. These additional 30 days will allow more people to help us shape the future of bus transportation around Baltimore."

Dan Pontious, policy director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said many transit riders were frustrated by last week's hearings.

The extension will give them a better chance to understand the proposed changes and will give the administration time to provide better answers to their questions, he said.

"This is good news, certainly, and it gives the administration a chance to release a revised plan that doesn't cut the overall transit system," Pontious said. "We're convinced the more opportunity for rider input, the better this plan will be."

Flanagan said yesterday that he hopes to set up more public hearings, but in a format that offers greater dialogue. The moderators who ran last week's sessions were not the transit planners who designed the proposed changes, he said.

"A lot of people got up in front of the hearing examiners and started asking questions, which was very frustrating for [the riders]" Flanagan said. "A lot of the time, people got up and asked us not to make changes when in fact the specific changes they were talking about weren't ever under consideration, so we had no way of correcting misunderstandings."

Administration officials say the proposal, dubbed the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative, would better serve the vast majority of riders with improvements such as additional cross-town routes, increased service at midday and to growing areas such as Fells Point and Canton, better links to the Metro and light rail, and more realistic schedules.

Other routes, particularly in the suburbs, would be eliminated.

The comment period, initially scheduled to conclude June 17, will be extended to July 21. No additional public hearings have been scheduled, but Flanagan said he welcomes suggestions for them from legislators and other elected officials.

Flanagan said the hearings have given the transit administration good ideas and that the final plan is not preordained.

"I would say that it's more of a foregone conclusion that there will be important improvements made on the proposal," he said.