Proposed ICC bus routes lean one way
The Maryland Transit Administration's proposed bus routes to operate on the Inter-county Connector lean heavily toward bringing workers from homes in the Interstate 270 corridor and Frederick-Hagerstown area to jobs in the Interstate 95 corridor -- with relatively little in the mix for Baltimore-area workers traveling the other way.
The MTA outlined its ICC commuter bus plans at the first of three informational meetings Tuesday night in Laurel. It was a lightly attended, confrontation-free meeting at which MTA officials spent much of their time listening to suggestions from attendees -- especially representatives of employers in the area.
There's a lot to like about the MTA's plans, which go a fair way toward realizing the promise that the ICC would be a significant mass transit corridor. But the proposal isn't very reassuring for those who hope to see the controversial toll road become a truly two-way road instead of one that carries traffic east in the morning and west in the evening. One of the selling points for the ICC was that it would more firmly bind the two largest regions of the state together as an economic unit. This plan, while it may be a realistic appraisal of the current market, fails to significantly advance that goal.
In short, Baltimore remains an afterthought.
The MTA proposal would begin unfolding late this year or early next year when the first segment of the ICC -- about 7 miles between Interstate 270 and Georgia Avenue (Route 97) -- opens. It would consist of two routes -- a No. 201 between Gaithersburg and BWI Airport and a No. 202 between Gaithersburg and Fort Meade. Both would follow the course of the first ICC segment and then use parallel older routes for the rest of the journey. When the second phase, which will take the ICC all the way from I-270 to I-95, opens in late 2011 or early 2012, the buses will take the speedier trip on the toll road's full length.
The 201 route is in some ways an exciting development. It would operate seven days a week, with 14 round trips a day, at a relatively modest $5 one-way fare and generous discounts for commuters. This opens up a transit gateway between northern Montgomery and BWI that doesn't exist now, but the destinations are stacked in favor of Montgomery-Frederick residents and against those who live in Baltimore. That's because the I-270 corridor residents are given a real destination -- BWI -- while the stops in Montgomery County are mostly park-and-ride lots instead of actual employment centers. Yes, westbound commuters will be able to make connections with Montgomery bus routes and the Metro at Shady Grove, but that makes for a grueling journey on an everyday basis.
The 202 route to Fort Meade is a 5-day-a-week route that is explicity designed to carry Montgomery commuters to the fort in the morning and home in the evening. There's little doubt this will be a useful route, particularly because the MTA and the Army have worked out security issues so the buses will be able to deliver workers to on-base stops. One can hope the MTA finds a way to use that newfound access to benefit Baltimore-area commuters who take some of the growing numbers of jobs coming to the fort because of base restructuring. But there are no plans to do so now. Perhaps the combination of MARC and shuttle vans will suffice. But it would be useful to have that discussion.
Routes 203, 204 and 205 would all open when the ICC is complete from I-270 and I-95 (a final sgment from I-95 to U.S. 1 has been postponed).
Route 203 would operate from Columbia to Bethesda and would highly useful for Howard County residents with jobs in the I-270 corridor at such places as the Naval Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health. It's a two-way, five-day-a-week service between two major employments centers and should be highly successful. What is questionable is how much it will attract riders from parts of the Baltimore region other than Howard County. Would many people drive to a park-and-ride in Columbia to take a bus? Could the ICC support another route from a point closer to Baltimore to Bethesda? Baltimore transportation leaders should press the MTA for answers.
Routes 204 from Urbana to College Park and 205 from Greenbelt Metro to Germantown are peak-hour services that will take mostly shuttle people between PPrince Geoorge's and Montgomery counties. Neither will have much effect on Baltimore-area commuters. The 204 route seems to me to be well-conceived, delivering riders to such workplaces as the Food and Drug Administration in White Oak and UM in College Park. The five-day Route 205 is explicitly aimed at getting Priince George's residents to jobs in the I-270 corridor. And it's hard to envision many Baltimore commutters taking the MARC Camden Line to Muirkirk and picking up the 205.
What seems to be missing is any attempt to connect Baltimore wiith the high-paying jobs that abound along I-270 -- or to give Baltimore employers access to the talent pool in Montgomery. The MARC train shows there's a lot of people who want to work in the Washington area but take advantage of the lower cost of housing in Baltimore.
Why not a two-way express route departing Camden Yards for White Flint and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda? (Ben Ross, president of the Action Committee for Transit, thinks it would be more practical to feed into the Shady Grove Metro and let riders transfer there. He knows Montgomery a lot better than I do.).
This is admittedly a seat-of-the-pants criticque from a Baltimore-centric source. It would be much better to get active participation from Baltimore-area transit advocates when the MTA holds its final meeting on the plan Wednesday night at the Spring Hill Suites at 7544 Teague Road in Hanover, near BWI.
At Monday night's meeting, there were no prominent transit advocates in sight. Many of them opposed the ICC and remain bitter over its approval. But it's a fact of life now, and we'd better make the best of it. It's time for former ICC foes to stop sulking and become advocates again -- this time for the best possible transit on the ICC.