Transit System Big Barrier to Lowering Maryland Unemployment

Jobs have moved to the suburbs but finding mass transit is a challenge.

Riders, area employers and elected officials agree the Maryland Transit Administration needs to revamp its bus lines to get workers to jobs in the suburbs. File | Patch
Riders, area employers and elected officials agree the Maryland Transit Administration needs to revamp its bus lines to get workers to jobs in the suburbs. File | Patch
Capital News Service

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 Baltimore residents 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.

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.”

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.

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, said Brian O’Malley, CEO at the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

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 in where the jobs are vs. the early 1900s.

Walk said some bus lines started out as trolley car lines.

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.

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.

Baltimore 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.

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, which allowed customers to air complaints and make suggestions through public workshops and a forum-style website.

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.

Customers tell of late buses, buses that never come, and buses that simply speed past when they’re full.

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.

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.

Lyle Kendrick contributed to this story.


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