The sun has not yet risen over West Baltimore Street, where people are scattered around the sidewalk outside the University of Maryland Medical Center waiting for the shuttle that will take them to their jobs at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
It is Sunday, when about 60 airport employees rely on the free Sunrise Shuttle, funded by a federal grant and contributions from employers, to get to work on a day when the region’s mass transit service is most limited.
“I take this shuttle because light rail doesn’t start running” until 11 a.m., said Jerome Nelson, who was headed to his job at Prospect Airport Services. “I’d be late.”
The shuttle, operated by the BWI Business Partnership, makes its first run at 4:30 a.m. and makes four trips on the half-hour from the West Baltimore Street stop to BWI. The partnership started the service in 2011 as a partial fix to a problem that is not unique to the airport and its employees.
In a city with an unemployment rate above 10 percent and a third of households without a car, transportation stands as one of the biggest barriers between Baltimore’s job seekers and a growing concentration of jobs in the suburbs that require low or modest skills.
Many of the Sunrise Shuttle riders, a sliver of the more than 45,000 Baltimoreans who rely on public transit to get to work, face weekday commutes that take an hour or longer to get from the city to the airport, about 10 miles to the south in Anne Arundel County.
On Sundays, those commuters in Baltimore must cope with more limited mass transit service, including a light rail system that doesn’t begin running until 11, hours later than its weekday start and five hours later than its start time on Saturdays.
Michele Corn, a wheelchair agent at Command Security in BWI airport, relies on the light rail and a bus to get to work Saturday through Wednesday. But on Sundays, the light rail is not an option to get her to the airport in time for work at 8:30 a.m.
“People still have to go to work early in the morning” on Sundays, Corn said. But the light rail starts late, “and I think that’s wrong.”
The BWI Business Partnership created the service to help workers like Corn and the employers with nontraditional hours who depend on them.
A nonprofit transportation management association, the partnership works with local businesses and local, state and federal government agencies to bridge some of the transportation gaps that employees face.
The Sunrise Shuttle is one several services provided by the Partnership, including shuttles that run during more traditional work hours when the Mass Transit Administration is running full service. Programs like Work on Wheels, for example, take workers and job seekers from Baltimore to suburban job sites in Howard County that are inaccessible by MTA routes.
The airport is a focal point for groups like the partnership and organizations that help people find work because of the number of jobs there.
Sid Wilson, a transportation project manager at the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corp., said employers at the airport and in the surrounding area are having a difficult time filling jobs and keeping them filled.
“You have 10,000 positions within BWI, [and] you also have the hotels,” Wilson said.
“This part of the county is [a] major, major hospitality industry, and they’re all underserved.”
Wilson said many businesses in the region struggle with low employee retention rates because many workers don’t have reliable transportation. People will often find ways to get to work when they start a job, because “they’re in desperation,” he said, but over time, that’s not sustainable. Without reliable transportation, they end up missing days and eventually lose their jobs.
Ben Cohen, the director of transportation and workforce programs at the BWI Business Partnership, said that employers appreciate and benefit from the Sunrise Shuttle as much as the employees who depend on it.
“The cost of employee turnover for a business is very high, so if they hire someone who can’t get out there on Sundays, they have to find another employee,” Cohen said. The shuttle service, he said, “is a win-win.”
Apart from the shuttle, Nelson, who lives in Baltimore’s Cedonia neighborhood, said that his other option for getting to work is the No. 17 bus, which runs all night but has a reputation for being unreliable.
“It might come on time, then sometimes it comes late, so that’s still a chance of being late,” Nelson said.
Some businesses in the region are even sponsoring their own shuttles, which shows employers know that transportation is an issue, according to Brian O’Malley, CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.
Johnnie Glover, who lives in Baltimore, now understands the issue, as well. He had to take his car to the shop last year and was faced with figuring out how to get to his job at Berry Plastics in Hanover without it.
He determined that he could get there on weekdays and Saturdays by piecing together a route with three different modes of transit — a bus, the light rail and a shuttle from the airport to his job site — a public-transportation journey of about two hours instead of his usual 40-minute drive.
But on the afternoon before his first Sunday shift without a car, Glover found out that the light rail wouldn’t start running in time for his 7 a.m. shift and the bus wouldn’t take him all the way to his work. A friend told him about the Sunrise Shuttle, but the situation left him stumped.
“I was feeling like, so how do people get around, then, where the bus doesn’t go?” he said, and then laughed. “I still ain’t figured that out.”