Questions about bus service already are flooding in from the parents of Baltimore students.
What would the Maryland Transit Administration’s plan to reduce bus service by 20% in January due to fiscal losses from the coronavirus mean for the 29,000 students who rely on it?
Will crowded buses skip students’ stops to make sure proper social distancing is maintained? For however long classes remain virtual, how would students be able to access schools to pick up meals and other resources?
“It’s going to be delicate dance, I’m not going to lie,” said Kevin Quinn, chief of the MTA. “It’s going to be complicated, and communication is going to really be key.”
As students returned to virtual classes this week, MTA and Baltimore City Public Schools officials presented their proposed plans and answered questions during a two-hour hearing (also virtual) before the City Council’s transportation committee Wednesday.
The proposed MTA cuts would not affect “school trippers,” the 27 extra routes along existing bus lines that accommodate increased student demand and include stops directly at schools, Quinn said.
Despite the proposed cuts, MTA officials were able to tweak the system so that six more schools, two community-service facilities and a medical facility would be connected by the frequent transit network — the one-third of core bus routes that carry about two-thirds of all passengers, Quinn said.
“Rather than focus on system-wide cuts, our approach was maintaining frequent service on most frequently used routes,” he said.
But the 25 bus routes targeted for elimination and the dozen others facing reduced service would mean students would be able to reach 26 fewer public and private schools, colleges and universities by catching an MTA bus within a quarter-mile of their homes, Quinn said.
“We don’t sit here as an opposing side trying to convince you these cuts are OK,” he said. “They are impactful.”
The city school district has drafted plans for a combination of online and in-person classes on an alternating schedule before returning all students to schools, when allowed by local public health authorities. Parents and guardians would have the option for their students to remain all-online.
“Clearly there’ll need to be adjustments made, as that’s the time we’re living in,” Baltimore City Schools Superintendent Sonja Santelises said during the virtual hearing.
Santelises asked that the MTA share more specific data on ridership that could help school officials see what routes are used most heavily for which schools.
“It would be really helpful for us,” she said.
Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, a Democrat who chairs the transportation committee, acknowledged the difficult challenges MTA officials are confronting in planning the cuts “handed down to them.” He noted the city, too, had to “scrap a whole budget” because of massive funding shortfalls.
The service cuts represent about $43 million, or 5% of the MTA’s operating budget for the 2021 fiscal year. The nearly $400 million in federal funding the state received from the coronavirus relief act passed by Congress in the spring is set to run out by the end of the month.
Councilman Leon Pinkett, a Democrat and vice chair of the committee, said the presentations sounded “scary” for students and their families. He also asked about overcrowding and cleaning measures.
“This is a critical conversation for us to be having, especially as we think about the health and safety of our young people,” he said.
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