The top official of the Maryland Transit Administration says he's trying to instill a new culture of individual responsibility and customer service at the often-criticized agency, outlining a series of steps he has taken or plans to take since being appointed to head the MTA last year.
"I'm very frustrated that there's a poor perception of transit," said MTA Administrator Ralign Wells. "What I'm trying to do is change the perception of transit."
Wells held a wide-ranging, almost two-hour discussion Monday night with members of the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore. But while he found considerable support for his priorities among members of the pro-transit organization, Wells and TRAC politely agreed to disagree on the MTA's most ambitious local project: the proposed east-west Red Line.
Wells, who rose through the ranks from bus operator to head of the agency, presented himself as an unabashed cheerleader for bus and train travel, frequently emphasizing that "I love transit."
Rejecting what he called some legislators' portrayal of transit as "welfare transportation," Wells argued that the service is vital to society. "Public transit is a public service -- not unlike a police department or a fire department," he said. "If you're not using it, it's still benefiting you" -- by keeping other vehicles off the roads.
The Sun/Kenneth Lam
At the same time he outlined some of the cots-cutting measures he has taken to hold down fares and preserve core services during a deep budget slump. For instance, Wells told TRAC that MTA buses might not get the level of deep cleaning they normally would, that the grass on MTA property might not be mowed as often and that light bulbs might not be changed until a bank of them burn out.
But Wells promised to run the MTA as a "lean" organization that gets the most out of the dollars it has. He said the agency now puts 92 percent of its budget directly into transit services. "We're getting to the point of diminishing returns," he said.
Wells said his priorities include an increased use of statistical measures to improve efficiency, a stronger emphasis on quality control, increased integration of MTA services with locally operated transit systems and building partnerships with community groups and other stakeholders.
Among the issues Wells addressed were:
BUDGET: Wells said the MTA expects to get by with a modest 1.6 percent budget increase from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2011, which would bring the agency's operating budget to $617 million.
FARES: The MTA chief said the agency plans to hold the line on fares this year and that it would only raise them after a thorough review of its fare structure, including the potential cost savings from introducing its new smart card -- now in development.
REVENUES: Wells described the MTA's fare box recovery -- the percentage of its budget contributed by riders -- as "pretty decent" at about 30 percent. That could be a controversial assessment among rural lawmakers, many of whom contend the MTA should achieve up to a 50 percent recovery. Wells said he was comparing the MTA's performance to other transit agencies around the country. He said the bus systems recovers 30 percent, the Metro 28 percent and light rail 18 percent -- with the MARC commuter train service in the high 30s. He acknowledged that MARC's fare box recovery had been much higher in the past but said costs have more than doubled while the MTA has held the line on fares.
FARE BOXES: Well said the MTA has formed a task force to address the perennial problem of malfunctioning fare boxes -- which not only cost the agency revenue but throw off its count of riders. He estimated that 95 percent of fare boxes work at any given time while 5 percent are out of order. He said the condition of the city's streets was a big factor in the wear and tear on fare boxes and other equipment.
PERCEPTIONS: Addressing what may be the most politically sensitive issue surrounding transit, Wells said some suburban dwellers are uncomfortable with riding with people from the inner city. But he said suburbanites who do use the system can attest that it is safe. Still, he acknowledged "cultural" issues in Baltimore that separate it from other metro areas such as New York and Chicago where transit ridership doesn't carry a stigma. He said the MTA will start doing better marketing of its services.
ON-TIME PERFORMANCE: Wells said the MTA has improved its on-time performance percentages across the board. He said the agency is now scoring 95 percent on time on light rail, 98 percent on Metro, 90 percent on Mobility and 80 percent on the bus system.
MOBILITY: Wells told TRAC the he believes Mobility, the MTA's van and bus service for the disabled, is serving close to 5,000 people a day -- but at a hefty cost. He said the service costs the MTA $45-50 a trip, far more than any of the other modes of transit the agency provides. Wells presented data showing that Mobility costs the MTA more to run than either the light rail system (28,152 daily boardings) or the Metro (45,497). The administrator said he hopes to improve core MTA services -- the city bus system. light rail and the Metro subway -- to the point where they attract more disabled riders. In many cases, he said, those modes can better serve disabled riders. But he said that in many cases those riders don't feel comfortable taking buses and trains. "The issue is that we have to make sure our core service is reliable," he said.
OPERATORS: Wells said the MTA has upgraded the uniforms the agency's operators wear and in particular has eliminated the former "barber-style" shirts drivers sometimes wore. "We're not barbers, we're professional operators," he said.
SERVICE QUALITY: The administrator said the MTA has changed supervisors' jobs so that they are not responsible just for one mode of transit but for any agency problems that come to their attention. "You're MTA, you're MTA, you have a problem, you fix it," he said. Wells said a new service quality group is now seeking out "bottlenecks" in the system to improve on-time performance.
MONDAWMIN HUB: Wells said the MTA has undertaken a $3.5 million renovation of its Mondawmin bus hub. When it is completed, he said, each bus terminal will be equipped with an electronic sign -- connected to a global-positioning satellite system -- telling riders exactly when the next bus is expected to arrive. He said tithe MTA expects to complete the project in November
ELECTRONIC SYSTEMS: The MTA has programs in the works that will use wireless networks to alert passengers of when to next a bus to arrive as well as to monitor the condition of buses on the streets. He said the MTA will design a system that will give riders 15 minutes' notice of when their buses are expected to arrive or allow them to call from their cell phones to get an exact arrival time. He said another planned system would identify buses that are in danger of overheating so that supervisors could replace them before they break down.
BUSES: Wells said the MTA wants to add 12 more articulated buses -- the longer vehicles that bend in the middle -- to its current fleet of 30. He said the agency has reached a deal under which it will accept 12 that had been ordered from the New Flyer company by a Chicago transit system that later decided not to go through with the deal. He said the MTA will acquire the longer vehicles for roughly the cost of a regular 40-foot bus. "We're getting a steal," Wells said.
QUICKBUS: Wells said the MTA hopes to expand its QuickBus program based on the success of its No. 40 and No. 48 routes, which make fewer stops than a typical local bus. He said he hopes to do more with the "branding" of the QuickBuses and to put articulated buses on the routes.
LOCAL TRANSIT SYSTEMS: The administrator said he will increase its work with local transit systems such as Connect-a-Ride and Howard Transit to improve interconnections with the MTA system. He said the MTA, which provides much of the funding for the local systems, wants to see the various county systems interconnect with each other -- to the point that a rider could go from Allegany County to Ocean City on public transit. He also said there are plans to include local bus schedule information on the MTA's web site.
SECURITY: In response to a complaint from a woman at the TRAC meeting that her elderly mother felt threatened by rowdy youths who refuse to give up seats reserved for the elderly and disabled, Wells said he hopes to eventually have feeds from the cameras installed in city buses available to the MTA police in real time. He also said the MTA plans to launch a cadet program for its police force and to put some of those recruits on the buses.
Wells urged TRAC members to become active partners with the MTA's efforts to improve transit services, along with other community groups he hopes to enlist to promote the value of transit services. He promised to keep the group informed of MTA initiatives and to seek its input.
"We're in this together. We love this stuff," he said.
It was only in the last minutes of the session that TRAC members raised the matter that is the big sticking point between TRAC and the MTA -- the agency's plans for a light rail system on the Red Line between Bayview and Woodlawn.
TRAC is a longtime proponent of a heavy rail system such as the Metro, but top MTA officials have consistently contended that a subway system could not get federal funding.
TRAC's Christopher Field complained that MTA officials have repeatedly rebuffed the group's requests to study a potential heavy rail system along the lines that TRAC proposes. "We've never felt that the MTA has been an honest broker in this discussion," Field said.
Wells sidestepped the issue, noting that the MTA studies and decision to recommend a light rail plan to the governor preceded his appointment as administrator.
But Wells said the reactions he's been hearing from the public on the Red Line, for which the state has submitted a request to the federal government for funding, are positive. "The people that talk to me are happy about it," he said.
He urged TRAC members to focus on the benefits the Red Line could bring.
"Let's not lose an opportunity for transit," he said. "We got to take transit when we can get it."