Report on regional mobility says MTA control is holding Baltimore public transit back

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Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr

A new Greater Washington Partnership report offering a high-level blueprint for improving transit connections from Baltimore to D.C. to Richmond criticizes the fact that the State of Maryland, not Baltimore City and other surrounding jurisdictions, operates our area’s bus, light rail, subway and commuter train systems.

It’s a problem of priorities and funding, the report says, stemming from the gap between the controlling authority, the Maryland Transit Administration, and local agencies or public officials, who have no oversight of public transit (aside from provincial systems like the Charm City Circulator).

“The MTA is part of the executive branch of the state and reports to the governor—with no local oversight,” the report says. “The governor’s priorities can differ from those of the region and years of planning and investment by prior administrations.

“State officials are accountable to constituents across Maryland, many of whom do not live in Baltimore and may not share Baltimore’s goals. At the same time, local officials in the Baltimore area, who are accountable to Baltimore-area residents, have no direct role in the area’s public transportation.”

Under this framework, the Greater Washington Partnership says, Baltimore’s bus and rail systems have faltered when it comes to maintenance and riders’ needs. As an example, one could look to the lagging service of the state’s championed BaltimoreLink overhaul, which, while changing the way the MTA bus system runs with color coding, route adjustments and tech enhancements, has still fallen short of performance targets.

Alternatively, they could also ask a Baltimore Metro Subway commuter who saw the system go completely out of service last winter due to overdue track maintenance, or a MARC commuter who deals with late, slow or stopped trains on a weekly basis.

A resentful local might also grandfather in Gov. Larry Hogan’s whole nixing of the once-long-awaited Red Line in 2015 after he took office. The $3 billion project would have connected East and West Baltimore by light rail, but Hogan said he saw it as a “wasteful boondoggle.”

Brian O’Malley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said he agrees with the report’s criticism of the state’s control of Baltimore-area transit.

“Right now, the Maryland Transit Administration is answerable to the governor, who serves the entire state. And so the people who live in this region, and who need a well-functioning transportation system, whether or not they ride it, their voice is diluted,” he said. “We should have some form of local oversight.”

Other metropolitan areas, like D.C., have a regional authority to oversee their transit systems. The report recommends reforming the governance and funding structures for Baltimore-area public transit “to enhance accountability and shared investments to create a truly regional rapid and reliable transit system in the Baltimore metro area.”

MDOT MTA released a statement late Monday afternoon saying officials “agree with the [report] author’s suggestion that reliable transit is a critical component of any transportation system.” The agency defended progress made thus far with BaltimoreLink, noting it’s launched new routes connecting to job centers like Sparrow’s Point and BWI Airport, and has seen a 14-percentage-point bump in on-time performance of CityLink buses.

The statement also touted investments in Metro Subway, Light Rail and MARC infrastructure, as well as the new mobile app replacing cash and tickets and offering free connector rides between buses and light rail or the subway.

The Greater Washington Partnership is made up of CEOs from around the region and country, including private stakeholders and transportation experts, seeking to better connect Richmond, D.C. and Baltimore. The report’s summary says all three cities have transit systems that have facilitated growth for the region, but that investments aren’t keeping demand with growth in ridership or mobility needs, which could slow economic development over time. The organization convened a committee in July 2017 to come up with a blueprint for fixing it all, which led to the report released today.

Altogether, its scope is broader than just criticizing the MTA’s control of the city’s public transit. Specific to Baltimore, the report recommends:

  • Replacing the 145-year-old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel running through West Baltimore, which has a curved path that slows incoming MARC trains, and is also crumbling (plans have been drawn up, but funding is lacking);
  • Creating “a seamless commuter rail network by expanding and integrating MARC and VRE services,” which shuttles passengers through from Richmond to D.C.;
  • Redeveloping Penn Station into a “thriving mixed-use station” (soon to be underway);
  • Finishing the Baltimore Greenway Trails Network to make the city more walkable and less geographically segregated.

“The Blueprint is exactly the bold call to action we need right now and one that will bridge years of uncoordinated regional investments and policies,” said the Greater Washington Partnership’s director of transportation policy, Joe McAndrew, in a statement. “It is time for stakeholders across the region, from Baltimore to Richmond, to come together to build the Capital Region the world-class transportation system it deserves.”

O’Malley, of the CMTA, said his coalition declined to sign on in support of the entire blueprint, citing its endorsement of adding a “tolling network” around the region along the Washington and Baltimore beltways, as well as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which the federal government would first need to sell to the State of Maryland to add new tolls. Hogan’s administration has agreed to study such a transfer. Adding tolls is part of his $9 billion “traffic relief” plan, which calls for what critics have dubbed “Lexus lanes” on I-270, I-295 and I-495 to help reduce traffic congestion while paying for road maintenance through toll revenues.

“It’s inequitable,” said O’Malley. “It will disproportionately improve mobility for higher-income people and those with private automobiles,” while redirecting transportation funds away from other projects.

“Also, it’s ineffective,” he said, pointing to Los Angeles’ stubbornly horrible traffic, even after continuous highway-widening projects. “It has a poor track record.”

Still, he said CMTA plans to work with the partnership and others to implement other pieces of the blueprint.

The organization is partnering with the Greater Washington Board of Trade tomorrow to host a forum on transportation at the Capital Hilton in D.C.

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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