Gov. Larry Hogan, returning to the site where he had vowed a year and a half earlier to remodel the region's bus system, said Wednesday that he had fulfilled his promise.
The Republican governor's $135 million BaltimoreLink route overhaul — a complete redesign intended to better connect people to jobs, entertainment and other modes of transit — is set to launch at 3 a.m. Sunday.
"I stood here on this very spot 19 months ago and committed that we were going to transform Baltimore's broken transit system," Hogan said at a news conference at the West Baltimore MARC station. "And we have done exactly what we said we were going to do. BaltimoreLink signifies the state's long-term commitment to this city."
The new system is built around 12 color-coded, high-frequency CityLink routes into downtown, with less frequent LocalLink routes radiating from them. It will also provide about a dozen weekday ExpressLink commuter routes.
The overhaul includes designated lanes to allow bus drivers to bypass congestion downtown, as well as technology that extends green lights and shortens red ones to get them through intersections more quickly.
An "info bus" has been riding the current routes to distribute information to passengers about the new ones, and hundreds of "route ambassadors" will be dispatched to bus stops across the system to help riders during the rollout.
The Maryland Transit Administration, which operates the system and has overseen the redesign, held 200 public meetings and has received more than 4,000 comments from riders and the general public, according to acting administrator and CEO Kevin B. Quinn Jr.
The MTA will offer two weeks of free bus service to launch the new system.
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, a Democrat, pointed to the project as an example of the city and state working together for residents. A successful bus system needs to be redesigned more than once every several decades, with input from riders, employers and other stakeholders, she said.
"BaltimoreLink will play a key role in the city's long-term sustainability and economic growth," the mayor said. "It is a robust transit system that is really essential to the growth and development of a great city."
Harry Respass and James Webster, union instructors who trained bus drivers on the new routes, said most of them are excited about the BaltimoreLink launch, which includes several new buses. The MTA has been at odds with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300 leadership, which opposed the route redesign and submitted an alternative plan calling for more state investment in the system.
Respass and Webster said they've seen firsthand the training of drivers, who submitted 1,100 comments after reviewing the BaltimoreLink plan. Each received a booklet with turn-by-turn directions and even restroom locations for their new routes.
"We are on the front lines," Respass said.
"I would say 90 percent [of the drivers] are prepared," Webster said.
When the governor introduced his plan, many doubted its feasibility, Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said.
"There were many people that did not believe that our talk of transforming a transit system in Baltimore could in fact take place," he said. "'Skepticism' is probably one of the most generous terms I can use."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he sent Quinn emails from his constituents citing problems, and most were resolved.
"I know it's not perfect, but we're working together to address all those issues and concerns that citizens have been calling about," Young said.
Quinn thanked the riders for their help in redesigning the system.
"We've heard time and time again that we need a better bus network," he said. "We couldn't have done this without you."