By MEGAN BROCKETT and JUSTINE MCDANIEL
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BALTIMORE — At 6:30 on a Sunday morning, Jerome Nelson of Northeast Baltimore waits in the dark for a shuttle bus that will take him to his job at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport in Anne Arundel County.
Nelson is one of the many Baltimore residents who have found work outside the city but struggle to get there on public transportation. The employer-supported shuttle he takes, run by the BWI Business Partnership, provides airport employees with rides on Sunday mornings, when transit service is limited.
“If this shuttle didn’t run, I probably would never be [at work] on time,” Nelson said.
For decades, the jobs that many Baltimoreans rely on have been moving to the suburbs. But most of the region’s transit routes haven’t been changed since before the Maryland Transit Administration took over local bus service in 1971.
Then, the city was thriving. Manufacturing jobs provided many residents with good incomes. But many of those factories have since closed or moved away.
Unemployment in Baltimore now stands at 10 percent, and experts say transportation is one of the biggest barriers to city residents seeking work.
“The way the transit system originally was designed in the Baltimore region … (was) to take people into the city to work,” said Matthew Kachura, project manager at the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance — Jacob France Institute (BNIA-JFI). “Now because everybody is outside of the city, you need to think about the employment centers that have developed around Baltimore … Transit was designed to take people to the city, not from the city to the suburbs.”
MTA officials also acknowledge the problem.
“The growth in jobs is outside of the city right now,” said Michael Walk, MTA director of service development. “That makes it much harder to reach by transit, particularly bus transit.
“One of the biggest challenges and the most difficult balancing act is being able to marry where people are living today and where the jobs are,” he said.
In Baltimore, where nearly one-third of households have no available vehicle, more than 45,000 residents rely on public transit to get to work each day, according to the Maryland PIRG Foundation.
In the neighborhoods where unemployment is highest, in some areas reaching 26 percent, the proportion of households with no car is well above the city average, as high as 64 percent, according to BNIA-JFI statistics.
For people who don’t drive, any job they find — whether the early shift, the late shift or weekends — must be a job they can reach by public transportation.
While many jobs still exist in Baltimore City, the positions available there are primarily high-skilled ones that require a certain level of education or training, said Brian O’Malley, CEO at the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.
Lower-skilled Baltimoreans today are likely to find work in Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties.
Suburban areas like these now host most of the low- and mid-skilled jobs, especially those that offer better wages and the greatest opportunity for advancement, O’Malley said.
It’s a problem that experts like Kachura call spatial mismatch, a complex problem where lower income individuals in the city can’t get to the jobs for which they are best fit.
And as development expands through the Baltimore-Washington corridor, more jobs are being created outside the city limits. In 2010, more than half of the city’s employed residents, at all skill levels, worked outside of Baltimore, according to statistics from BNIA-JFI.
O’Malley said that while the transit system has been “tinkered with at the margins here and there,” it hasn’t been comprehensively changed to address the shift.
“It’s still essentially the system that was designed in the early 20th century when everything was in the city and the whole point of the transit system was to get people from where they lived into downtown,” he said. “They haven’t adapted it to the reality of where the jobs are now.”
Walk said some bus lines have been around longer than the MTA itself.
“The majority of the routes that exist today… is by and large because that’s the way it’s always been from back in the Baltimore Transit Company era. Some of the lines… started out as trolley car lines, and then they switched over to bus, and they continue to be bus lines today,” he said.
Sid Wilson, a transportation project manager at the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corporation works with businesses throughout the county to address the issue.
When employees don’t have reliable transportation, Wilson said, they miss work and often lose their jobs, costing employers money and time.
At the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, Michele Whelley, who served as the group’s CEO until November, said the alliance hears from major employers who are concerned that they won’t be able to fill jobs without a pool of workers that have reliable transportation.
Some employers have begun sponsoring private shuttles like the one Nelson takes to work on Sunday mornings.
But other employers are hesitant to recognize transportation as the problem and say things like poor work ethic or personal unreliability are to blame for low employee retention rates, O’Malley said.
“From (the employer’s) perspective, maybe it’s a lack of work ethic, but from the perspective of the person [going to work], it’s really hard to put your kid in daycare and then transfer three times and spend an hour and a half getting there,” he said.
When an employer cannot feel confident that he can get workers to the job, Whelley said, the employer may decide to move.
“We’ve already had that situation over and over again in central Maryland,” she said.
Baltimore city officials said they have little influence over the MTA. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says the MTA is slow to respond — one reason why the city found it easier to create and pay for the Charm City Circulator, its own bus line that carries riders around downtown.
“The state runs the bus service,” Rawlings-Blake said. “We certainly give feedback on the quality of service and the extent to which it’s meeting the needs of our citizens.”
Although the MTA acknowledges that change comes slowly, the state agency says it is developing an improvement plan.
In September, it launched the Bus Network Improvement Project (BNIP), which allowed customers to air complaints and make suggestions through public workshops and a forum-style website.
The MTA hopes information gathered from the project will allow the agency to create new plans that will lead to better service and higher customer satisfaction.
While many riders say they appreciate the public transit system that lets them get their groceries, drop their kids off at child care and attend doctor’s appointments, others aren’t shy about voicing their complaints.
“The MTA sucks, period. They’re slow, they come when they want to come, they’re dirty,” said Tekyla Brown, 32, who takes the No. 17 bus to Linthicum Heights on Sundays for her job as a housekeeper at the Wingate Hotel.
Her coworker, Mary Waters, 27, added that the MTA needs better customer service, particularly when it comes to bus drivers.
“They work with people all day long. It’s not that hard to have a smile and say, ‘Good morning,’” she said.
Customers tell of late buses, buses that never come, and buses that simply speed past when they’re full.
Many riders gamble with their time every day. Keith Thompson, 49, of Waverly, must take the Charm City Circulator to get to his MTA bus stop every night. Thompson, who works at The Salvation Army, knows that if he misses his first MTA bus, two more full buses will bypass his stop and it will be an hour before he’s on his way home, he said.
Walk acknowledged that parts of the city need improved transit, and he said the MTA needs more transit planners.
The most important part of transit planning is putting lines in places where they will be used by the most people, and connecting lines to increase a rider’s ability to get to any other part of the bus network, Walk said.
Efforts to bridge the gaps in the public transit system, like the Circulator, employer-sponsored shuttles and college-run bus lines, help bring workers from the city to the suburbs and help residents get around in downtown Baltimore. But supplemental transit systems cannot function as replacements for the MTA’s 700 buses.
“(T)he Circulator bus system has been a blessing to Baltimore,” said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents Baltimore’s 14th district. “It shows us that with adequate funding… buses can come regularly, reliably and safely… If we can do this for one ever-expanding bus line, we can do it all over the city.”
Walk said requests for more funding take time to make their way through the complicated legislative process. The MTA is also required to hold public hearings and allow feedback periods for certain types of changes, Walk said.
“You can’t just make bus operators appear out of thin air in the middle of the fiscal year,” he said.
The bus schedule has not been updated “in quite some time,” Walk said, which means it hasn’t adjusted to changes in traffic, new types of buses and current commute patterns.
With an outdated schedule, some buses today cannot make the scheduled times no matter how hard the bus driver tries, he said. This can create a domino effect of delays down the entire line.
Certain lines were combined in 2005 and 2006, creating long routes that increase the likelihood of delays. If a bus with an hour left on its route is delayed, it could be late to every subsequent stop.
Because some lines take more than an hour to complete their route, there can be long waits between buses and difficulty making connections, said Thomas Reaves, head of Baltimore Transit Archives, a community group that advocates improving public transit. Reaves recently submitted a 17-page recommendation for improvements to the MTA.
“People are willing to catch a bus or catch a train and connect in a reasonable distance, but when it’s fractured or when you have to wait too long for connections, you get defeated,” he said.
Political opposition creates another barrier to building transit lines that run to where concentrations of jobs are in the suburbs and other underserved areas.
“Projects have been killed that would have run to major employment centers because people complained or they believed the stigma of public transportation would affect the area,” Reaves said.
Walk said the MTA is also behind the times when it comes to technological rider tools, which many cities use to streamline the rider experience. Whether at the stop, online or via smartphone app, many transit agencies provide maps, scheduling information and real-time arrival estimates.
Sonya Grabowski, a 24-year-old law student at the University of Baltimore who moved to the city recently, said she rides the Circulator instead of the MTA bus because the Circulator has convenient, easy-to-use maps and schedules, unlike the MTA.
“I have no idea how they operate,” she said of the MTA. “I’ve just been a little intimidated.”
Walk said people find the system confusing, particularly non-riders or potential riders.
“Right now we’re sort of behind the curve and the technology,” he said.
But as the MTA begins to look at improvements, Walk said the agency is more open-minded than it has been in the past. It is seeing support for the Bus Network Improvement Project from MTA head Robert L. Smith, Secretary of Transportation Jim Smith, and Gov. Martin O’Malley, he said.
“They’re really getting behind this project as an improvement project, not just some effort to try to cut costs. It really is [about] what does the region need,” Walk said.
Public comment for BNIP closed on Nov. 30. More than 650 users signed up for the feedback website and 3,730 people visited it, according to the MTA.
In April, the MTA will publish its recommendations for changes and two implementation plans, a one-year plan and a five-year plan. After public hearings, it hopes to put the first phase of changes into motion in August 2014.
However, the MTA says that new routes to suburban jobs are most likely more than a year away.
It will spend 2014 implementing plans to improve current lines, and in “subsequent years” make different routes to serve major job centers like Fort Meade and Arundel Mills, Walk said.
Lyle Kendrick contributed to this story.