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Ralign Wells on the hot seat

New MTA chief on why so many in Maryland avoid transit like the plague

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MTA Chief Ralign Wells

Photo by: Fern Shen

Maryland Transit Administration chief Ralign T. Wells came before a tough crowd Monday night: true believers who love transit, know a ton about it, pretty much hate the proposed Red Line light rail and have been crafting heavy rail alternatives to it since long before Wells took the helm of the agency in December.

Wells was speaking at one of the regular monthly meetings of the group that represents transit users, the Transit Riders Action Council, and the fact that the agency’s highest official came and spoke for two hours, answering numerous questions throughout his presentation, left some warm feelings.

“I’m pretty sure, if he had been in charge back when, they wouldn’t be doing this Red Line,” one of them said afterward. (High praise from this group.)

But although the Red Line subject was regarded as a distraction from Wells’ other talking points –the MTA’s problems, their financial “constraints,” his goals and planned technological fixes – next-day complaints about Wells’ response on the hot-button light rail issue exposed the general tension that still exists between Wells and these advocates.

“Mr. Wells seems to lack the power, the courage, or both, to offer the public anything more than platitudes, generalizations, and anti-NIMBY rhetoric regarding the Red Line,” Youssef Mahmoud, a transit activist who attended the TRAC meeting, said in an email yesterday.

Wells had a tough audience. (Photo by Fern Shen)

In answer to questions about the $1.8 billion dollar Red Line, Wells dismissed its opponents as the kind of vocal minority who “you’re always going to have” and whose objections should not be allowed to stand in the way of good transit.

“I look at it as . . . how is it that a state like Maryland has a subway line that runs from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins and that’s it? Because people resisted!” he said. “Let’s take transit when we can get it.”

Having TRAC lumped in with neighborhood nay-sayers didn’t sit well with the group’s president, Christopher Field, who pointed out that TRAC had prepared several detailed heavy rail alternatives to the Red Line LPA and the MTA ignored them.

“The MTA from the beginning has never dealt with TRAC in a proper manner. . . . we’ve never felt like the MTA was an honest broker,” he said, hotly.

Lean times for transit

The TRAC crowd gave Wells more of a break on other issues, acknowledging, perhaps, that his budget is tight and the system’s problems are pernicious.

What is Wells’ budget situation? The agency will pinch pennies, in non-safety-related areas, he said, in order to avoid fare increases and live with a less than 2 percent 2011 budget increase, to $617 million. Buses wouldn’t be cleaned as well, he said, lawns might not be mowed as often.

From Ralign Wells' Power Point.

On the revenue side, the agency has been criticized harshly by lawmakers in Annapolis for its plummeting farebox recovery rate, meaning, the proportion of their budget that comes from fare-paying riders. It has declined from over 50 percent to the point where, on average, it is about 30 percent, which Wells said was “decent,” given increasing costs in recent years.

Transit riders also have a farebox complaint, a more literal one: they say they are often out-of-order. Wells said only 5 percent of these devices are malfunctioning at any given time and argued that it is not that big an issue since 75 percent of transit riders have pre-paid passes. Wells has assembled a task force to study this problem and said he is looking into how Maryland’s farebox recovery rates stack up to those of other states.

But of course the cash-strapped agency has worse problems than grimy buses and shaggy lawns and Wells addressed them.

Perception, that’s the problem!

MTA’s biggest hurdle, Wells said, is the public’s low opinion of buses and other forms of transit as unclean, late and not safe. He talked about where he thinks this attitude comes from — why Baltimore is not like DC, where transit is “cool,” or New York or Chicago where people write songs about the “A Train” and the L.

Essentially, he blamed racial stereotyping.

“You have people in the suburbs, unfortunately, riding with inner city people that don’t look like them” and making assumptions about them, Wells said, calling it “a cultural problem” and one that “I can’t fix.” State legislators who criticize the agency, he said, share this bias and think of transit as “welfare transportation.”

An audience member questioned this analysis, observing that public transit was available at his old workplace and no more than 10 percent of his co-workers chose to use it – “and most of them were black people.”

Another issue Wells said was more perception than reality was the on-time rates. He said on-time performance has improved and that light rail is on time 95 percent of the time, Metro is 98 percent, Mobility is 90 percent and the buses are 80 percent.

Transit rider Mahmoud interjected at that point.

“I just have to dispute the idea that it’s a perception problem, that on-time performance is a perception problem,” he said, saying that half the time, the buses he would try to take in Charles Village were late, sometimes by 20 minutes, while others were often five minutes early, requiring him to “chase them down the street.”

Wells allowed as how some places might have bottle necks or particular problems but, pressed by TRAC member Nate Payer on his budget limitations, he said the MTA would not be able to add service to relieve the problem.

Instead he said he would be shifting service from areas where on-time is not as important “and putting greater frequency where we do need it.”

Fixes for what’s fixable. . .

Wells detailed some of the MTA initiatives that might correct some of the problems, such as the long-awaited Charm Cards (a “smart card” with an embedded computer chip to automatically keep track of prepaid transit fares) and a “Real Time Passenger Information System” that could tell you on your computer or cell phone when the bus was 15 minutes from your stop.

There will also be some new electronics at the Mondawmin bus hub, which will be undergoing a $3.5 million renovation beginning in November, he said. Signs there will tell when the next bus will arrive.

Wells said he hopes the new Quickbuses will get some “branding” and might be able to use some of the 12 new articulated buses. People in the audience wistfully mentioned the Charm City Circulator, when the branding subject came up. (That’s the new highly-touted, non-MTA, city-run system designed – somewhat like the Quickbus – to move choice riders around key routes in the downtown core.)

Meanwhile, branding was not the fix Angela Bethea-Spearman, was looking for, from Wells: she just wanted safety on buses in her community of Uplands, far from downtown.

“I have a mother who sometimes takes the bus. . . she’s very afraid of the bus,” Bethea-Spearman said, describing how disrespectful young people take the seats set aside for the elderly and disabled “and the drivers don’t do anything.”

She asked if the electronics could be used to film such passengers or alert police and Wells said he hoped to have the buses equipped to do that some day and said they are planning a cadet program, which might provide additional security on buses.

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  • Nate Payer

    While I certainly agree cultural and socio-economic differences are a reason for suburban avoidance of core MTA services, they are not the primary reason. Most Baltimore area transit is too slow for those with the financial means to drive his or her own car.

    There are 3 components that affect travel time (where accessibility remains constant): transit vehicle operating speed, service frequency, and reliability. Most MTA core bus services are too slow. By some measures they average only 10 mph, at least during rush hour. Service frequency has been cut significantly in recent years due to budget rather than demand. Many bus lines operate at 30 to 60 minute intervals during the day and at night. Unreliability forces users to allow more time before an expected run and to prepare for late arriving services by planning for an earlier bus run.

    The socio-economic discrepancy between the old urban zones and the modern suburbs in the respective Chicago and Philadelphia areas is not dissimilar from Baltimore. However, both cities have a much more comprehensive rapid transit and suburbans commuter rail systems that provide good access to suburban populations who can generally afford to operate automobiles. These systems have large time savings relative to what could be accomplished by local bus. They are frequent, reliable, and fast* relative to local buses. They are fast enough that in many cases they are “auto-competitive”. This means the total trip time on these services is close enough to driving that many car drivers will take transit when feasible or appropriate.

    Only with the Metro Subway and to a much lesser extent the Central Light Rail, does the MTA offer such auto-competitive transit in its core services. The MARC service is very auto-competitive, but also much more limited compared to the aforementioned cities.

  • Scribe1592

    I totally agree. If most Marylanders, who currently depend on MTA had alternative modes of transportation to get around – they would leave MTA in a blink of an eye. I truly believe that service will not improve until those who create these outrageous transit lines actually have to use the service themselves. Then you will understand what the rest of us have to deal with everyday. I would love it if camera crews followed around the top MTA officials as they would have to use the bus/subway/light rail for two weeks! They must use it everywhere they would go as if they were in their cars. I bet you most of them wouldn't last one single day. Then, maybe you would consider the plight of the thousands of people who MUST rely on this system and how sweeping changes need to be made.

  • Scribe1592

    I totally agree. If most Marylanders, who currently depend on MTA had alternative modes of transportation to get around – they would leave MTA in a blink of an eye. I truly believe that service will not improve until those who create these outrageous transit lines actually have to use the service themselves. Then you will understand what the rest of us have to deal with everyday. I would love it if camera crews followed around the top MTA officials as they would have to use the bus/subway/light rail for two weeks! They must use it everywhere they would go as if they were in their cars. I bet you most of them wouldn't last one single day. Then, maybe you would consider the plight of the thousands of people who MUST rely on this system and how sweeping changes need to be made.

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