With new leadership at the Department of Transportation and a standalone committee now overseeing issues like buses, bike lanes and parking, the ways that people navigate the city are getting fresh scrutiny.
The chair of that new committee, Councilman Ryan Dorsey, today announced a half-dozen hearings at City Hall on subjects ranging from the city’s at-times out-of-sync traffic lights to DOT’s “operational and staffing challenges.”
“It’s time we start giving transportation the priority it deserves. Few areas of policy are so integral to good public safety, health, workforce, and education outcomes, and yet it’s easy for transportation to be left out of the equation,” the 3rd District Democrat said in a statement.
The first hearing, set for Aug. 28, will cover DOT’s comprehensive transportation plan and implementation of Complete Streets-friendly infrastructure, required under a law sponsored by Dorsey and enacted by then-mayor Catherine Pugh last year. The policy committed Baltimore to designing roads, sidewalks, bike lanes and other street-design elements to cater to pedestrians, cyclists and public transit rather than just drivers.
Another hearing on Oct. 9 will cover traffic signals and street lighting. Back when he was still council president last year, Bernard C. “Jack” Young called for DOT to sync up traffic lights as the agency was pushing a new policy, later adopted, to fine drivers who “block the box” by impeding intersections after lights turn red. Workers tried to meet that request last summer, but a traffic nightmare ensued.
DOT’s then-chief engineer and deputy director, Muhammed Khalid (who left his post this summer), told lawmakers at a May 2018 hearing that bringing the city’s system that coordinates thousands of signals “into the 21st century” would cost more than $100 million over the next six years.
Another hearing on Sept. 11 will concern the state of general operations and staffing at DOT. A recent Office of the Inspector General probe found the agency’s now-former director, Michelle Pourciau, “publicly demeaned and humiliated” senior managers and staff, and said data substantiated that there was increased managerial turnover under her watch. Cycling advocacy nonprofit Bikemore and Dorsey have argued she made it more difficult for the agency to retain and recruit knowledgeable personnel.
Young appointed Steve Sharkey, formerly director of the Department of General Services, to the top post at DOT last month.
We’ve reached out to the agency for comment from Sharkey on the planned hearings, which will also cover road repaving and resurfacing and ADA compliance (Sept. 25), improving public transit service in coordination with state agencies (Oct. 23) and, broadly, a regional transit plan for Central Maryland (Dec. 11).
Eric Norton, director of policy and programs for the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, which advocates for improved travel infrastructure in and around Baltimore, lauded the council for focusing on “the MTA transit piece,” in particular.
“I think there’s often an attitude the city takes toward MTA and public transportation that, well, that’s a state issue, we can’t get involved in that or shouldn’t or don’t have authority to,” Norton said. But the city “could be doing more with the dedicated bus lanes, signal timing to help the buses get through, prioritizing the light rail–when it’s running anyway.”
“The city has some tools at its disposal even if it’s not running the MTA, and I think it’s a good sign that they’re going to start talking about that more.”
Ahead of the first hearing, Dorsey’s office has disseminated a survey asking Baltimore residents to rate DOT’s customer service skills, efficiency with completing projects, community engagement and more. Take it here.
This story has been updated.
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