BaltimoreLink: Reliably less than promised

In October of 2015, Gov. Larry Hogan promised a “transformative” plan to upgrade Baltimore area transit service in the wake of his decision to kill the $2.9 billion Red Line, the long-promised 14-mile east-west light rail system from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview. The $135 million BaltimoreLink project, primarily a redirection of Mass Transit Administration buses, was launched last summer. Just over one year later, it’s time for a serious examination of what Governor Hogan and the MTA have wrought.

The best evaluation to date was released Thursday by the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, the coalition of corporate and civic leaders who have been advocating for improved and expanded transportation options in the Baltimore-Washington-Annapolis area for more than a decade. The 46-page report, “Are We Better Off?” can best be summarized by two photographs that appear on Page 40. One features an MTA illustration of how BaltimoreLink was imagined: Pedestrians happily congregating around an island in the middle of a road, bus lanes on either side, elegant benches and streetlights, lanes reserved for MTA vehicles (including one carrying bicycles in front).

The other is a photograph of what the authors note is an “actual transitway” in Baltimore: The curb lane painted “Bus Only” and not a bench or similar streetscape feature in sight.

That is BaltimoreLink. In sum, it is neither especially good nor especially bad. As the report notes, the project has produced some modest improvements — most notably an increase in the number of people living near high-frequency service between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. and a “marginal” improvement in access to high-paying jobs. But on many other fronts, the performance is just so-so. The authors found little evidence of of greater bus reliability or riders getting to their destinations faster. MTA buses may now have real-time tracking like your next Lyft or Uber, but the experience of actually using them is pretty much as fraught as always. The question of why anyone would ride the bus in Baltimore unless they had to remains as pertinent as ever.

The MTA isn’t really to blame for this. Aside from some initial stumbles (and the confusion one ought to expect with major changes to long-standing bus routes), the state agency seems to have done the best that could be expected with so little in the way of resources. If anything, the kind of increased efficiency that BaltimoreLink represents was overdue, and the updates were bound to be painful. Whenever bus routes are redirected, there are bound to be winners and losers — people who had bus stops in front of their apartments who now have to walk several blocks or vice versa. The report’s most serious criticism of the agency is that it hasn’t been especially transparent about its performance, but that’s not exactly a new development.

The real problem, as transit advocates have pointed out again and again, is that serious transportation improvements of any kind can’t be bought so cheaply. That’s just the reality of public infrastructure. Governor Hogan has made upgrading highways and bridges a far higher priority than transit. Even his official biography on Maryland.gov makes no mention of transit projects he’s actually spearheaded like the Purple Line or increased funding for WMATA — although “84 top priority road projects,” toll relief and “structurally deficient” bridges make the cut.

Despite the fortuitous timing of an election year, it’s doubtful that Baltimore transit will be foremost in the political debate between now and November. While Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous has advocated for a return of the Red Line — a truly unlikely prospect for a variety reasons, among them the current occupant of the White House — it’s an issue buried on his own campaign web site (one of seven infrastructure proposals highlighted under his “Great Cities: A Vision for Maryland’s Future” summary). He says a “dramatically different approach” than BaltimoreLink is needed, but he doesn’t go into much detail.

Veteran transit riders can’t be especially surprised by any of this. The Baltimore region has a long history of shortchanged public transit, from its runty subway line to its bare-bones light rail system. (Make that “system,” with the most sarcastic air quotes possible.) Imagine if the Baltimore Beltway or Fort McHenry Tunnel had been developed similarly; drivers would be dealing with harbor ferries and a two-lane ring road. And the consequences of that? Not just congestion but a massive blow to the economy. If voters want Baltimore to continue to be mired in problems of poverty, drug abuse, joblessness and crime — and watch them spread — they need only tell their elected officials to continue down this same road of too-little, too-late investment in a transit system that, like it or not, begins and ends with MTA buses.

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