Hundreds gather to decry bus route changes

Baltimore-area residents turned out by the hundreds yesterday to vent their anger at state officials who are proposing a radical restructuring of Maryland Transit Administration bus routes.

Emotions in the hearing room at War Memorial Plaza were nearly as hot as the sidewalks outside as speaker after speaker excoriated a proposed plan that would reroute, consolidate, truncate or eliminate many long-familiar routes through the city and its suburbs as of Oct. 16.

"Is there anyone here who has read a clear and compelling reason from the MTA?" demanded Albert Pietrolungo, a blind federal worker who would lose service to his Perry Hall home on the No. 15 route under the proposal - one of the Ehrlich administration's highest-profile transportation initiatives.

Like many speakers, Pietrolungo, 57, had a story that illustrates the potentially high human cost of the most sweeping changes to the MTA's route structure in three decades. He said that 25 years ago, when he was offered a job in downtown Baltimore, he and his blind wife chose to live along U.S. 1 in Perry Hall precisely because it was on a bus route.

"You make life decisions based on where the bus is," he said. "You don't change simply because you feel like it or the budget is a little tight."

The aggrieved are more likely to turn out at public hearings than the satisfied, but those who attended yesterday's hearing were virtually unanimous in their disdain for the plan - a top priority of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan.

The blind, the physically handicapped, the developmentally disabled, the elderly, transit enthusiasts, political militants and the merely ticked-off showed up in force to criticize what many characterized as a plan drawn up by people who don't ride the bus.

Richard Scher, an MTA spokesman, said that as of 5:30 p.m., about 675 people had shown up and 107 had spoken at the hearing, which was scheduled from noon until 8 p.m.

Many were angered by changes that would cut off access to their jobs, force a longer walk to a bus stop or disrupt familiar patterns of their lives. Others opposed any changes whatsoever. And many spoke to vent long-standing frustrations with the MTA - rude drivers, crowded buses, young people who won't give up seats to the disabled - that had little to do with the proposed changes.

Flanagan, who was not present, said he understood that much of the testimony was from people who are "fed up with the existing system."

"They're not criticizing the plan. They're criticizing the status quo," he said.

But many of the speakers were clearly outraged by both the status quo and Flanagan's attempts to change it in ways they don't understand.

"What is needed after all this is a boycott against the MTA," John Cheatham said in a fiery speech that was greeted with loud cheers. "They have treated you shabbily for years."

Ted Shargel, 73, said the MTA's proposal to move the No. 15 bus off Forest Park Avenue to a route farther away from his home is literally a matter of life and death.

"I would be lost without a bus, and I have congestive heart failure," he said.

Many of the speakers voiced frustration with the absence of high-ranking MTA administrators and most elected officials.

"Where are all these elected officials who come around every four years?" demanded Calvin Oliver, a worker at University of Maryland Medical Center who said the plan could increase his walk to his bus stop from five to 10 blocks.

MTA official Ralign Wells, who moderated the first several hours of the hearing, tried in vain to enforce a two-minute limit on comments that seemed to inflame more speakers than it cut short.

Wells' effort to enforce the limit fell especially flat when he attempted to apply it to state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, one of the few elected officials to appear.

McFadden, encouraged by a supportive crowd, rebuked Wells, telling him he would apply a two-minute limit to Flanagan's remarks the next time the secretary appears before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

The Baltimore Democrat urged MTA officials to rethink some of their proposed cuts - such as one route that mainly serves domestic workers and Villa Julie College students in Greenspring Valley.

McFadden said that although he approves of the review of existing bus routes, he believes the administration is moving too fast in implementing changes.

"Give this process some time. Make sure everything we do here is legitimate," he said.

McFadden's comments came as Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore regional county executives sent a letter to Ehrlich requesting another 60 days for the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board to review the MTA's plans. They also urged an extension of the public comment period for the plan - a move that could delay its implementation.

Frank J. Principe Jr., an aide to Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said the elected officials who make up the board decided to send the letter after the MTA did not respond to an informal request from the staff of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to give its planners more time to study the plan.

Flanagan said he is open to making changes in the plan, which calls for increased service on some routes and cutbacks on others, but is determined to move forward in October.

"I'm not at all sympathetic to the calls of elected officials who say, 'What's the hurry fixing our system?'" he said. "I don't want our customers to wait another winter in the freezing cold for buses that are chronically late."

Flanagan said the MTA chose October as the time to implement the changes because it's still fairly warm, and daylight-saving time would still be in effect.