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June 15, 2010

MTA chief outlines priorities

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."

Posted by Michael Dresser at 9:46 AM | | Comments (23)
        

Comments

How about teaching bus drivers that you don't block the intersections or run red lights?

How about stopping the practice of the two-lane angle-block at stops?

a) nice picture of Mr Wells
b) 6th para, first sentence: "...he outlined dome of the cots-cutting measures..."

So I guess the editors are out today?

With respect to the Red Line project, one is reminded of the rationale used by the Bush Administration prior to the Iraq invasion--the soldiers were in place and ready to invade, therefore making the invasion inevitable. Whether the invasion was the best action for the USA was only questioned after the mistakes became obvious and lives and funds were wasted. Such seems to be the same with the Redline project, now that its costs are vitually identical to the far more reliable metro (heavy rail) system expansion, which would have directly leveraged the system and investments which have already been made and which would have provided higher speed service over a wider area. Look at the ridership numbers of Metro as they compare with the existing Light Rail--the relative success of Metro speaks for itself, as compared with the Light Rail.

I've e-mailed MTA a dozen times on the same issue...Security of Public Transit.

1) Check Fare Card on Light Rail - All the "characters" that cause trouble hop on & off without a fare ticket.

2) After 35 years in Baltimore City, spare me the "urban cultural" sensitive issue that black riders "act out" on the bus is a myth. Code of Conduct & enforcement needs to be addressed.

I ride the Light Rail to/from BWI all the time. Fare Enforcement & an MTA Officer make a world of difference in the quality of the ride.

3) Charm City Circulator - I ride it all the time. A perfect example of good idea with no thought given to it. City needs a $3-$4 All Day Pass to keep Tourists on the Circulator and homeless, panhandlers off it. It was set up to promote city attractions, not another Free Program.

4) I never see MTA Police in a Metro Station, beyond making time with the ladies in the turnstile attendant booth. Get them on the trains.

Security, Security & Security are the three main issues the MTA needs to address.

Buses in my neighborhood (Woodberry by the light rail stop) always run their motors while idle waiting for the next run with no one onboard and not moving. The buses are consuming gas and polluting the environment while not in service. Changing this practice will save fuel and money.

PLEASE send me the list of legislators that called mass transit "welfare transit". If that's not the most classist statement I've heard I don't know what is. In any progressive city the correct thing to do is get rid of your car and use the MTA, unless you have an absolute need for a car, or you're lazy, which I suspect is the case with these legislators. I ride the MTA daily, live in the city, and walk when I can, maybe these so called legislators could give it a try.

COMMENT: The phrase "welfare transportation" was Ralign Wells' characterization of a point of view rather than a specific quote.

Why were there no questions asked about the Red line? Cities with effective public transportation attract more residents and revenue. It's that simple.

Bus arrival time information would be splendid. Now MTA just needs to start sending the correct information to Google for Google Transit maps.

The past few batches sent identify many bus routes as light rail, etc. This makes the map quite confusing to non-residents, and google folks only know our system well enough to fix the obvious mistakes.

In terms of security, I ride every day and have never felt unsafe. I do agree that MTA police ought to be on trains and buses more than in their fancy new Police cruisers.

How about fixing the issue with drivers waiting 10-15 minutes on a route for a shift change? This seems to be a regular practice on the #40 in the afternoon, where drivers will stop by the Eastern District police station and hold up the route for 10-15 minutes because their relief is late.

How about the conduct of the sorry excuses for human beings that operate the transit vehicle? The right be surly jerks must be written into the union contract...

@Lombard St Guy: Charm City Circulator is Baltimore DOT, not MTA.

Wells referred to the smart card, which is "now in development." Now as in since the beginning of time, it seems. I'm just patiently waiting to use my SmarTrip.

Does anyone know what happened to the "43" quickbus, i.e. the one that (mostly) followed the same route as the 3, but with fewer stops? I haven't seen it recently, but I have seen the "3X," which is what they previously called the 43. Anyone have an explanation on that?

Wells discussion of the "Mobility" service was very interesting, and I'm amazed that it costs more than the light rail or the subway.

I suggest that the MTA apply much stricter criteria to the applicants for the program, and that they should consider outsourcing that program to a private company.

Also, did Wells talk at all about making it easier to purchase week/month passes? There should be a few MTA machines at the train station (first floor) that accept credit cards, so non-metro/light rail riders can buy passes.

FWIW, I was a regular rider on the 48/8 to/from Towson from Greenmount and North Avenues from Sept. through April.

Yes there were occasionally foul mouthed riders. But more than once, men drivers mostly but not just, MTA drivers admonished the riders and even in one case asked the people to leave the bus (successful, but with some animus on the part of the ejected).

OTOH, I have ridden buses on the WMATA system in DC for 20+ years and I don't believe I have witnessed similar expectations of decorum. In other words, the MTA drivers stand up for a better riding experience.

---
thank you for the very detailed writeup of the meeting.

The MTA information should be given to walkscore.com MTA is one of the biggest transit agencies in the country that don't provide data to walkscore. This causes Baltimore locations to recieve artificially low scores compared with other cities where transit data is included.

Boeing-going to aberdeen
Far Mark-going to aberdeen
Cybercommand-going to Ft meade
Lockheed-expanding in middle river
What do these all have in common? City residents cannot access these jobs via transit.
Which of these locations will be served by the Redline- none.
Wake up and smell the coffee people- MARC service serving all these places will never receive funding as long as we cling to the pre-2005 plan that created the Red Line. Reality has made the plan obsolete

Regarding the the #43: This proposed route was not implemented due to no support of riders of the 3X who would lose some of their service. This is because buses assigned to the 3X would instead be assigned to the 43, which would have run in peak hours only. Due to the budget situation the MTA can only implement "cost neutral" service upgrades. This means that improving service on one line may require reassigning drivers and buses currently assigned to another line. Thus additional buses and drivers and higher expenses are avoided.

This article has the highest number of typos i have seen in the Sun in 50 years!

Tyler,

Try your SmarTrip sometime. I can almost always get mine to work on the Metro and bus here in Bmore.

As someone who was at this meeting, I would argue that the write up failed to adequately summarize the discussion of the Red Line. Mr. Dresser has short changed the points made by the opposition while providing a comprehensive summary of Mr. Wells' argument.

Among the points made at the meeting that were not addressed here:
-Congestion on Rt. 40 caused by the red line will inevitably lead to a road expansion that will necessitate taking people's houses.
-The red line will be slower than the current #40 Quickbus.
-A better version of the red line would be affordable if it were built in stages instead of all at once.

The Red Line project is the perfect example of how abject mismanagement and myopic planning is paralyzing Baltimore's public transportation. A heavy rail system, i.e. the much-needed and overdue expansion of the Metro, is not just the best & most logical option - IT'S THE ONLY OPTION! Here's hoping the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore intensifies its pressure on the clueless, misguided & underachieving Maryland Transit Administration.

@Attila
I tend to agree with you that for the region to address its highway congestion, it needs a speedy mass transit alternative, and that is metro. That doesn't mean that streetcars and buses don't have a place in our city. They are great for short trips inside a community. They are terrible for shuttling people across the region.

Also, your handle is AWESOME!

Ralign T. Wells it getting the concept to expand the MTA. Though I have ideas: purchase more 30-foot buses; combine the Corridor Transit routes into MTA service; combine the four express bus lines with the quickbus service; re-instore planned quickbus 43; split the no.14 into two seperate lines; shorten the no.23 to Essex P&R and continue Fox Ridge branch with new bus line {Fox Ridge- Hopkins Bayview}; extend no.57 to Sinai Hosp.; reroute no.15 to Rogers Ave. Station (via Garrison Blvd.) and eliminate Perry Hall/White Marsh branch; reroute no.91 to Sec. Sq. Mall/Westview (via Security Blvd. & Forest Park Ave.); eliminate no.13 Fells Point branch and reroute service to a new route {Canton- Perry Hall/White Marsh} (via Belair Rd., Washington/Wolfe Sts.).

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.
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