Transportation-focused advocacy group calls for BaltimoreLink improvements

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An MTA CityLink bus. Photo by Scott218, via Wikimedia Commons.

After conducting a study that finds the revamped BaltimoreLink bus system failed to deliver on many promises in its first year, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance is calling for more investment into buses and greater transparency from the Maryland Transit Administration.

With MTA’s future budget expected to decline by hundreds of millions after 2019, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance has called for restoring funds if BaltimoreLink is ever going to deliver faster, more frequent service.

“The MTA’s operating budget has averaged about 2 percent growth over recent years, not enough to keep up with rising costs, let alone produce transformative outcomes,” president and CEO Brian O’Malley said in a statement.

In the report, titled “Are We Better Off?,” the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance found that while the redesign offered more people access to high frequency buses, overall performance and reliability still lagged.

MTA reports that the high-frequency CityLink lines, which are supposed to run every 15 minutes, are on time 73 percent of the time, and the less frequent LocalLink lines are on time 64 percent of the time. But as has been pointed out before, including in Baltimore Fishbowl, MTA changed the definition of “on time,” from a range of one minute early to five minutes late to a range of two minutes early or seven minutes late.

Using the old standard, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance found that on-time performance fell to 42 percent for LocalLink lines and 32 percent for CityLink lines after volunteers stood at a stop for one to two hours and charted arrivals in three separate months.

In a statement, Kevin Quinn, administrator of the MTA, defended the use of this metric, saying they “match industry standards including WMATA.”

He also wrote that five miles of dedicated bus lanes and traffic lights that give priority to transit at key intersections have helped to speed up service.

A computer analysis conducted as part of the study found that, even though a greater share of the population is near high-frequency transit as a result of BaltimoreLink, the routes were not effectively connecting people to job centers, defined as areas with a minimum of 10,000 jobs. While more people are able to access places such as Annapolis, Columbia and White Marsh on weekdays, access to downtown Baltimore, Linthicum and Pikesville declined.

“The net result of the increases and decreases was that the number of people
who can get to the ten employment centers in 45 minutes or less remained roughly
unchanged,” the study said.

In his statement, Quinn said the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance neglected to include “24/7 transit service to BWIs Cargo Operation and throughout the BWI Corridor and new service to Trade Point Atlantic.

“Trade Point Atlantic is projected to exceed 10,000 employees onsite by 2025 including Under Armour’s new distribution center and Amazon’s new fulfillment center.”

The study found that census tracts with high rates of poverty and a lack of employers also saw access to jobs decline slightly when compared with the old bus system.

But gauging performance is harder because of MTA’s changes in certain metrics and a lack of data. The MTA no longer tracks average ride time, for example. The agency only publishes data on ridership and on-time performance, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance said.

“MTA should expand on these metrics to report on the aspects of transit that matter most to riders: Fast, Frequent, Reliable, Connected, and Walkable,” the report suggested. “MTA should publish methodologies for how these are calculated.”

Quinn said the data on ridership and on-time performance “is typical of the widely accepted transit planning model used by any of the top 20 US transit agencies.”

The looming budget cuts, the reports said, are “a threat to the Baltimore region’s transit system at a time when bus breakdowns and the Metro subway shutdown indicate a need for investment.”

Quinn pointed to a new app with live updating and other projects as a sign that more improvements are in store for BaltimoreLink.

“MDOT MTA is working hard and leveraging innovative strategies to continue to deliver on on the promise of BaltimoreLink,” he wrote.

The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance’s full report can be read here.

Brandon Weigel

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