Baltimore Metro shutdown frustrates riders, politicians

The first day of a sudden, monthlong shutdown of Baltimore’s Metro for emergency track repairs brought confusion and frustration for many riders Monday — and finger-pointing about how the system fell into such disrepair that service had to be halted with less than 24 hours’ notice.

The head of the transit operator’s union said the Maryland Transit Administration in recent years has restricted Metro speeds rather than fix track problems, while Gov. Larry Hogan blamed previous administrations for a “drastically underfunded” system with a woeful maintenance record.

MTA administrator Kevin Quinn said repair work is expected to cost $1.5 million and last until March 11 — a routine if unexpected process for a 36-year-old system.

“We were scheduled to do the maintenance, but in the safety check, they found out it was worse than they expected,” Hogan said. “And we don’t want to put anybody’s lives in danger, so we moved it up and said we have to do it immediately.”

The political bickering — which spilled over into a General Assembly hearing in Annapolis — meant nothing to rider Tameka Davis, a 41-year-old nurse who rides the Metro from East Baltimore’s Highlandtown to a job in Reisterstown.

For Davis the shutdown meant one thing: being late to work Monday morning after waiting on a crowded East Baltimore corner in the drizzling rain for a bus that felt like it might never come.

Although Hogan had allotted $2.2 million for free coach buses to run the Metro’s route, the MTA hadn’t distributed information about specifically where the buses would stop or when they would arrive. While she was aware of the shutdown, Davis did not know what to expect with the shuttles.

“I’ve been out here for 45 minutes,” Davis said. “I was supposed to be at work at eight o’clock.”

Her bus arrived at 8:27 a.m.

The subway closed over the weekend for safety inspections after the need for emergency repairs on the aboveground, northwest leg to Owings Mills were discovered late last week. Problems discovered on the underground portion led to a closure of the full system.

Metro has a ridership of 34,000 each weekday, state officials say, and about 17,000 on Saturdays and 12,000 on Sundays.

Hogan said Monday that emergency repairs were “catching up from 30 years of neglect” and that his administration had “put $3.5 billion into transportation in Baltimore.”

“Nobody’s ever done more,” the Republican governor said.

John D. Porcari, who served as transportation secretary under Democratic Govs. Parris N. Glendening and Martin O’Malley, disputed Hogan’s assertions.

“Transit was a very high priority across the state, including in Baltimore,” Porcari said.

Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, also criticized Hogan’s assignment of blame.

“Three years into a term it’s time to take ownership of the infrastructure that your administration is responsible for,” Lierman said.

Records of the capital transportation program show that Hogan added $58 million to the current budget for renewal of “interlockings,” the places where trains can switch from track to track. It was the first investment during Hogan’s tenure the program records listed as “significant.”

The previous significant investment in Metro was for the 2013-2018 six-year plan; the O’Malley administration allocated $335 million for rail car and signal system upgrades and replacements. A review of state capital transportation plans shows there has been consistent investment in maintenance projects over the years — under both Hogan and O’Malley.

Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr. supported Hogan’s assertion about lax maintenance under previous administrations.

“There was neglect throughout the system,” Ports said Monday at a hearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation. “So we are picking up where they left off.”

Del. Tawanna Gaines, who chairs the subcommittee, said she didn’t believe what she heard from Ports. The Prince George's County Democrat said representatives of the union representing MTA workers have come before the subcommittee for three years warning about conditions.

The subway shutdown reflects the Hogan administration’s priorities on “the roads, not transit,” Gaines said.

The administration could have diverted some of the $900 million it saved by canceling Baltimore’s Red Line light rail project into enhanced maintenance of the Metro, Gaines said. “They chose not to,” she said.

The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance released a statement criticizing the administration’s handling of the metro.

“Although the MTA deserves some credit for making an unpopular decision that puts rider safety above all else, it begs the question of how we got to this point,” the advocacy group said. The organization recently released a study saying the Hogan administration has shortchanged greater Baltimore on transit investments — especially when compared with money spent in suburban Washington.

Ports told lawmakers the department was preparing for a planned shutdown for maintenance work during July and August when inspectors found that the gauging on the tracks on 11 curves was in worse condition than expected.

“It deteriorated quicker than anyone anticipated,” he said.

Inspectors flagged those worn-down sections of rail between Owings Mills and Old Court, in the area of the Milford Mill station, and between Rogers Avenue and the mouth of the tunnel at Mondawmin, Quinn said.

“The rail is worn down,” he said. “You evaluate through measurements how that rail has worn down.”

David McClure, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, which represents Metro drivers, said he raised concerns about the system’s state of repair to the MTA in 2016. Instead of fixes, he said, MTA officials restricted the trains’ speed in some sections from as high as 60-70 mph to 15-20 mph.

Restricting speeds when track problems are detected is standard safety step, Quinn countered. Such restrictions are lifted once tracks are repaired, he said.

P.S. Sriraj, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said “slow zones” are common measure in cities where rail infrastructure is growing old and “may be a little bit wobbly.”

Still, McClure said, the MTA “has been aware of these conditions for quite some time.”

“They should have phased this in so the public would not have to endure the hardship they’re enduring,” he said.

The hardships were easy to spot Monday. At the station near Johns Hopkins Hospital, an MTA representative repeatedly walked back and forth to guide lost passengers to a nearby bus stop where a free shuttle was picking up riders.

Better signage was coming soon, he assured them.

The representative told riders that 26 coach buses were traveling the Metro route and one would arrive soon. He’d begun work at 4 a.m., and at one point saw six shuttles in a row, he said. The long waits, he said, were likely due to them getting stuck in the morning rush hour.

Rachelle Legaspi finished her overnight shift at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Intensive Care Unit at 7 a.m. When she walked out to the Metro station and asked a few security guards where the shuttle would pick up, they didn’t know, she said.

The 33-year-old nurse rides the metro to the hospital about three or four times a week. She had heard about the shutdown and was aware of the local and express “bus bridge,” as the MTA calls it. But she could not find a schedule or map to help her find it.

“It’s very confusing and frustrating,” Legaspi said.

She was hoping to avoid using Uber, but after a 12-hour shift she was beginning to consider it. Then, she noticed a pair of MTA personnel across the street in florescent yellow vests.

Legaspi said she doesn’t usually have any problems with Metro service. She and her husband chose to live in Owings Mills, in part, because she could take the subway to the hospital.

She said she understood the need for repairs on a nearly four-decade-old system.

“All we’re asking for is to be informed ahead of time,” Legaspi said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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