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Mayor’s race: MTA running late

  Marcie Roberts heard the disembodied voice--“Welcome aboard MTA”—one recent morning as she boarded a bus at Northern Parkway and York Road. She was in the middle of her daily 90-minute-two-bus commute from Windsor Mill to her job in Towson. The bus that got her to that point was the 44. She said it wasn’t so welcoming.

“Bus 44 is the worst bus I ever got on.”

Roberts said the bus is often late and doesn’t run at convenient times.

And she’s not alone. Floyd Cox says it takes him about 45 minutes to get from his home near the Alameda and Woodbourne Ave to his job downtown. And that’s on a good day. Cox says he’s often late for work because the buses are late, and he blames the people running the show at the MTA, the state agency that runs the buses in the city.

“Get better supervising, you know, better management,” Cox says.

In fact, the MTA is coming under fire from its customers for providing lousy service and using outdated technology. And many of the candidates for mayor are taking aim at the MTA as well.

Elizabeth Embry, one of the 13 Democrats running for mayor, says a large percentage of city residents rely on the bus for everything from getting to work to getting to the doctor, yet they have no way of knowing when the bus is coming.

“And that’s an embarrassment in an age when we have the kind of technology that allows Uber to function, and you know our smart phones do a better job than the MTA,” she says.

A Baltimore Metropolitan Council study found that more than 12 percent of the households in the Baltimore region have no car. Embry says it’s more like 30 percent in the city, and 80 percent in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

According to the MTA, 83 percent of buses were on time system-wide from October to December of 2015. That means they were anywhere from one minute early to five minutes late. Statistics were not available specifically for Baltimore City, since many buses cross the city-county line.

Kevin Quinn, the Director of Planning and Capital Programming for the MTA, says Embry’s criticism is fair. However, he says, the agency has $35 million in the budget to equip the buses with GPS technology by July of next year. That way riders can know exactly when their bus is expected to arrive.

MTA has a real time program now. It’s just not very real. Quinn says it relies on radio rather than cellular technology, and sometimes it just gives you the scheduled time, not the real time.

“We recognize that we need to make this all real time,” Quinn says. “Just spitting back when the bus is expected to arrive doesn’t do you any good.”

While the MTA is not in the app business, he says, it is working with developers to create a bus app. The MTA dumped its data on those app developers a couple of weeks ago so they can get to work.

City Councilman Nick Mosby, another Democrat running for mayor, says one reason the MTA is behind the times is that it’s the poor who rely on it.

“And unfortunately they haven’t had the necessary advocacy,” he says. “There hasn’t necessarily been the will over the past couple of decades to benefit and develop a quality mass transit system.”

Mosby says the city needs to be more involved with the MTA. Embry agrees. She says no mayor in her lifetime has used the bully pulpit to hold the MTA accountable. Embry also supports legislation in the General assembly that would create an MTA oversight board.

“And whether it’s a board that includes city representation or another form, I want to have formal involvement in the MTA,” says Embry.

But Quinn says that’s not necessary. For one thing, the MTA is not just about Baltimore, it is a statewide agency. And, MTA officials already meet almost weekly with city officials. They are working together to revamp the bus system—to be called Baltimore Link--that is scheduled to be rolled out next year.