Commuters ride out bus system's changes

James Casamassina had to walk more than twice as far to catch a bus to the hospital. Joe Garraway was hours late to work.

Ron McComas spent about 3 1/2 hours getting from Towson to Dundalk. But Joseph Rascoe was thrilled with his new, faster bus route.

Confusion, frustration and anger were common - and satisfaction harder to find - as the Maryland Transit Administration introduced its "new, improved" weekday schedule and route system to a skeptical riding public.

The most sweeping route restructuring in MTA history made its debut Sunday, but yesterday was the first time it was put to the test on a work day.

Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan spent three hours greeting riders at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and reported receiving a lot of positive feedback.

"It was a good first day, and we'll continue to make ourselves available to our customers," he said. "The more they learn about how the new system works, the happier they're going to be."

The MTA typically serves about 230,000 riders a day, about 105,000 of them on routes affected by the restructuring. Community activist Chuck Venick, who was talking to commuters downtown last night, said the changeover seemed to be going well. "I don't see any meltdowns or disasters," he said.

But the majority of riders interviewed by reporters on buses or at stops - in Lutherville, Northwest Baltimore and Dundalk - said the MTA flunked.

"This is disgraceful," said Ted Smith. "Shame on the MTA. I'm angry."

Smith used to ride the discontinued M-6 line to get to work at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn. Interviewed at the Rogers Avenue Metro station bus stop yesterday, he said he'd just been told by two drivers on the No. 44 route that the bus would not get him to his office. He was thinking about taking a cab.

Smith might have been the victim of miscommunication. According to MTA operations director Beth Kreider, No. 44 buses do serve Social Security.

In some cases, the MTA went to unusual lengths to help distressed riders. One woman on the No. 8 route arrived at the Lutherville light rail station bus stop about 9:45 a.m., missing the morning's last connection to the new No. 12 bus to the Stella Maris health care complex.

MTA Supervisor David Powell, who was posted there to monitor connection delays, said he called an extra bus to take her there.

Some MTA customers were satisfied, however.

Rascoe, a 57-year-old hospital porter, enjoyed his first ride on the newly created No. 40 express bus as it sped toward the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus.

"I'm up here a lot faster this morning," said Rascoe, who was delighted that the new bus would drop him off at his workplace's doorstep rather than at the bottom of a hill. "If it runs like this all the time, I'm going to like this."

While the MTA has pointed to the No. 40 - which runs from Essex to Security Square Mall - as an example of improved service, the route was showing some inaugural problems yesterday. The bus Rascoe was riding carried only about a half-dozen riders from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Eastpoint Mall.

Garraway, a 36-year-old porter for United Distribution Services on North Point Boulevard, watched No. 40 after No. 40 pass - sometimes only about five minutes apart - as he waited more than an hour for a connecting No. 4 bus to work. He used to catch a more frequent No. 10 bus, which no longer runs by his workplace.

"There's about 40 40s," he said. "Nobody needs a 40."

Most of the passing 40s were virtually empty, and few had the bus route number programmed into their electronic signage.

Flanagan predicted that ridership on the No. 40 will grow as word of its convenience gets out.

"It's an undiscovered gem, and the first day it was undiscovered by many of its potential customers," he said. The transportation chief said he, too, had noticed the problem with the signage and that the MTA would correct it.

Earlier yesterday morning, at Wise Avenue and Lynch Road in Dundalk, Casamassina leaned on a cane as he stood by a No. 4 bus stop that was now the closest to his home. He said his walk to the stop took more than half an hour, compared with 15 minutes before his neighborhood lost service on the No. 10 line.

"Come wintertime, I'll never be able to do this," said Casamassina, 46, who goes to Bayview several times a week for medical treatment.

Overall, the biggest complaint seemed to be a lack of information - despite extensive efforts by the MTA to publicize the changes. Many riders were confused about when their next bus would come.

"They could at least have put new schedules up," said Lisa Bentzen of Baltimore as she waited to switch buses in Dundalk.

Flanagan said the lack of posted schedules was an "understandable transitional issue." He said the MTA will continue to have representatives on the street to help customers adapt to the new system.

"After 35 years, any change is going to be challenging," he said. "I'm confident that we are going to make a quick transition to a newer and better system."