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Amy is waiting for her bus at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on Tuesday, as she does every weekday at 7 a.m. Joining her on the B30, a line that runs between BWI and the Greenbelt Metrorail Station, are five others who arrived at the bus stop just before sunrise. Later, at the second stop at Arundel Mills Mall, they’ll be joined by six more.
Amy greets the bus driver, Cynthia Eaglin, as she boards the B30. They’ve become pals over the past few weeks and chat as Eaglin drives along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The two women discuss grim news they recently learned—that Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is possibly cutting their bus line.
While Eaglin depends on the bus for her job, Amy relies on it to get to the airport for shelter. She is a former paralegal, displaced from her D.C. apartment in 2018 due to a mold infestation that turned into a months-long legal dispute with her landlord. She doesn’t want anyone to know about her situation because she faces prejudice when people learn she’s unhoused. City Desk agreed to use a pseudonym.
For the last year, Amy has been without a permanent home, so she stays at whatever shelter she can find. Since mid-October, that’s been BWI.
“This is my last resort. I feel safe there—there’s security, there’s heat, air conditioning, restrooms, food for me to purchase, and it’s a public building so it’s open 24 hours. There’s really no other options. Shelters are not open 24 hours a day. They’re obviously not safe,” says Amy, 46. “I am disabled. I’ve already had some run-ins with the homeless population. I’m a woman. I don’t feel safe.”
At the airport, Amy tries to keep a low profile. She carries a duffle, so she looks like any other traveler. It’s not until Amy gets on the B30 that she speaks above a whisper, usually with the bus driver.
Amy takes the first bus into Greenbelt to grab a shower at a public pool, and food at a local church, both conveniently off the Green line. Then Amy takes the evening bus back to BWI where she stays overnight, often in baggage claim. Her routine is prescriptive because it has to be. She has trouble getting around due to various disabilities: blood clots in her lungs, poor eyesight, and uncontrollable swelling in her legs and feet. She says she’s currently being tested for cancer so she doesn’t know the full extent of her medical conditions. MetroAccess, a reduced fare program for people with disabilities, gives her free rail and bus access.
In the mornings, Amy is usually joined by a dozen passengers, give or take. It’s a relatively quiet bus on Tuesday morning, as most riders take advantage of the 40-minute ride to nap. Antonio is dozing on-and-off during the commute. He says he moved to Baltimore two years ago for his nephew, who took a job there. But his daughter and grandchildren are still in Prince George’s County, just off the Green line. He prefers the B30 over the other transportation options, namely Amtrak and MARC train, because WMATA is the only one that pays for his fare in full. He qualifies for MetroAccess because he has a disability, sickle cell anemia.
“This is very convenient for a whole lot of people—especially me. For people that are disabled, this helps us out a whole lot,” he says.
Toward the front of the bus that morning is Alma, a D.C. housekeeper who rides the B30 every weekday and declines to give her last name. “Ay, no,” she gasps when she learns WMATA is debating whether to cut her bus—it’s her preferred way to travel to work. Nayankumar Patel, too, would rather get to his consultant job in Southeast D.C. by Metro bus and rail. The BWI Amtrak and MARC station is often desolate in the early mornings, and it’s a shuttle bus ride away from the airport—an option that feels less safe. The B30 stop is right at the airport next to a bunch of other bus stops, not to mention all the other foot traffic that comes with a bustling airport. But Patel doesn’t always take the bus, only when the weather’s bad, as it was on Tuesday.
“You have all kinds of people,” says Eaglin of those who ride her bus. “There are just people from everywhere and I love it—I love transporting the people and the people love this bus line.” She lists them: travelers, airport workers, folks who live in Baltimore but work in D.C. (or vice-versa), and people looking to hang out at Arundel Mills Mall, where there’s plenty of entertainment to choose from, including a casino. When Eaglin arrives at Greenbelt Metrorail Station at 8:20 a.m., 10 people are waiting for her. Most of them are carrying luggage, but Eaglin spots one of her regulars.
Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld first proposed eliminating the B30 last year as a way to balance the transit agency’s budget. The proposal is included in the 2021 budget, and is one of 21 bus lines that could be eliminated due to “redundancy” or “low ridership.” A WMATA spokesperson says riders are increasingly choosing Amtrak and MARC over the B30. Amtrak can cost upward of $45 for a one-way ticket, while MARC costs $7. Each takes about 20 minutes to get from Union Station to the airport, a shorter commute than the bus. And the B30 costs 50 cents more per ride than the MARC; its price tag has more than doubled since 2010. The average weekday ridership on the B30 is 192, the spokesperson says. With 14 scheduled trips, northbound and southbound, that’s about 7 people per bus.
The B30 isn’t going to be terminated just yet. The proposal still needs to go to the WMATA board for consideration and requires a public hearing. A decision is unlikely until the spring. The last time it was on the chopping block, in 2016, the B30 survived. WMATA did, however, increase the fare and got rid of weekend service. Eaglin says this just exacerbated the problem, decreasing ridership even more. It was set up to fail this way—a shame, the B30’s defenders say, because Balimore deserves options to and from the airport. It’s unclear if the B30 will survive this time around.
“People will just adjust,” says the 8 p.m. bus driver to Amy. “Not me,” Amy replies.
She’s the only rider on the B30 that evening. Other times, at this hour, Amy says she’s joined by a few. Before the New Year, a silver-haired woman accompanied her on this particular bus. Amy believes the woman was also staying at BWI for shelter.
When Amy arrives at BWI, she walks toward the very end of the airport, where international travelers pick up their luggage. She plans to sleep on a chair by a Christmas tree, where there’s a heat vent. She’s not the only one at the airport that night for shelter—there’s anywhere between 50 to 100 people experiencing homelessness who stay.
Amy doesn’t like to sleep at the same spot multiple days in a row for fear of getting in trouble. She used to sometimes stay at Dulles International Airport, but stopped in the fall. She says police threatened to arrest her in October if she slept there again, taking her photograph and name. A Dulles spokesperson did not respond to questions about this incident, but says that the airport’s policy changed in October, banning non-ticketed persons in the airport overnight. Reagan National airport also has a ban.
An acquaintance of Amy’s, Tara, who’s been staying at BWI since 2018, says she’s been cited by Maryland Transportation Authority Police twice, and Amy’s worried that’ll happen to her. “They basically want us to wait down by the [MTA] Light Rail instead of us coming all the way into the airport,” Tara says, declining to give her last name. “They try to segregate us.”
Depending on the officer, people experiencing homelessness can sometimes sleep anywhere at BWI without harassment. But between 5 and 7 a.m., officers go from person to person, walking them up so they can take public transportation and leave. At around 6 a.m. one morning, City Desk saw one officer wake up two people who were lying on benches.
A BWI spokesperson didn’t respond to specific questions about the officer waking people up. He only says, “We continue to work very closely with several partners to help these individuals receive information and specialized care from appropriate professionals.”
Amy is trying to get her affairs in order and obtain housing. Eliminating the B30 would make it even harder for her to do that. “There’s nowhere else to go that would be consistent, and I need consistency,” she says. “I’m not well.”