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Editorial

Gov. Hogan unveils $135 million plan to improve Baltimore bus system

Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday unveiled what he called a "transformative" $135 million plan to improve Baltimore's bus system — his answer to the mass transit void left by his cancellation of the Red Line light rail project.

Speaking at the MARC train station in West Baltimore, Hogan outlined a plan for a CityLink system — a color-coded network of 12 high-frequency Maryland Transit Administration bus routes serving downtown Baltimore.

It will provide access to an additional 131,000 jobs, the administration said, and another 76,000 jobs will be served through new commuter bus lines.

Hogan said the changes will bring long-overdue changes to the state-run bus system, which he described as "abysmal."

"The bottom line is that Baltimore's current transit system is a mess," he said. "It is poorly integrated and simply doesn't make any sense."

Among the suburban locations to benefit are some of those that would have been served by the Red Line — Security Square, Woodlawn and Bayview. Other sites include White Marsh, Essex, Halethorpe and Catonsville. Officials said that with the new route structure, no rider would have to transfer more than once to get anywhere in the network.

State transportation officials said a complete overhaul of the region's bus routes, including the new high-frequency routes, would be completed by June 2017. Changes to bus routes have to go through a public hearing process, but the plan does not require a vote In the General Assembly.

While the governor touted the plan as a major investment in Baltimore transit, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a staunch supporter of the scuttled Red Line, was not impressed. She declined an invitation to appear at the announcement and later released a statement saying Hogan's plan "does little to advance" public transit in the city.

"At best, this bus plan may help the state fulfill its basic obligations under Maryland law," Rawlings-Blake said. "But it fails to deliver the regional East-West economic development benefits that Baltimore's business leaders, elected officials and residents had been counting on through the Red Line."

But other Baltimore elected officials were pleased.

"I think it's a game-changer. I think it's so important to the city," said Councilman Carl Stokes, a candidate for mayor.

While the governor touted the plan as bringing improvements, it will also require many change-averse riders adjust their routines.

"Nearly every bus route is going to change in some way," said Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn.

The MTA also plans to add new express commuter buses to Fort Meade, Owings Mills, BWI Marshall Airport, Towson Town Center, Pikesville and White Marsh. New commuter routes will be launched to connect Baltimore with Aberdeen Proving Ground, Annapolis and Kent Island, and existing commuter bus service from Columbia will expand. In addition, the MTA will launch shuttle service between the Savage and Odenton MARC stations and Fort Meade.

The changes to commuter service are scheduled for January 2017. Commuter bus services carry higher fares than the $1.70 charged on core MTA bus routes, which will include the new high-frequency routes when they come on line.

Hogan's plan represents the most sweeping changes to the region's bus system since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative a decade ago. But unlike that widely criticized overhaul, MTA officials said the Hogan plan would not cut off any neighborhoods from existing bus service.

The governor said there is "no comparison whatsoever" between his plan and the one implemented by his former boss' administration. That plan led to widespread complaints and legislative hearings and multiple revisions after it was implemented.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz also criticized Hogan's plan as insufficient. "Although the Governor has not shared his transportation plan with me, it appears that it once again leaves the Baltimore region stuck in traffic. Simply 'window dressing' a bus system is not a mass transportation solution," Kamenetz said in a statement.

"They should have been doing upgrades as part of their job anyway. The plan will do nothing to increase choice ridership on mass transit, and it does nothing to promote economic development," Kamenetz said.

Donald C. Fry, who as president of the Greater Baltimore Committee was one of the chief backers of the Red Line, said Hogan's plan is far from transformative.

"The governor's decision in June to abandon the Red Line set back mass transit in the region for more than a decade," Fry said. "Although operating efficiencies are always welcome and should be pursued, today's announcement does little, if anything, to shorten that timetable and does not provide the economic and job opportunities that the Red Line presented."

Nevertheless, several Baltimore political figures attended Hogan's announcement, including City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young and three Democratic candidates for mayor — Stokes, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Some parts of the MTA's plan would require the city's approval.

Among those would be the state's vision of creating "transitways" – east-west and north-south streets that would be closed to cars and have dedicated bus lanes to speed travel through downtown. Hogan announced the plan before a backdrop showing downtown Baltimore Street transformed into a streetscape shared by buses and pedestrians. But Rahn acknowledged that there is no actual plan to close that street to traffic – something that would require the city's assent.

The MTA would also need the city's buy-in for a proposal that calls for signal priority for transit so that lights remain green when a bus is nearing an intersection.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said it was too soon to say whether the city would work with the Hogan administration on implementing the plan because the state had yet to share the details. But he expressed wariness about Hogan's plan to install technology at 200 interesections to allow bus priority.

"And who's paying for it?" he said. "Is the city paying for the governor's transit plan?"

Among those pleased by Hogan's plan were advocates for bicyclists. The pro-bike group Bikemore released a statement praising the initiative, which includes proposals for new bike racks at 83 MTA locations and increased bike access to MARC trains, as "a huge paradigm shift" for Maryland.

In June, Hogan announced that he was pulling the plug on the $2.9 billion Red Line project after a dozen years of planning. He described the proposed 14-mile light rail line from Woodlawn to Bayview as a "boondoggle" and refused $900 million in federal funding earmarked for the project.

City leaders, including Rawlings-Blake and members of the General Assembly, protested that decision but were unable to persuade Hogan to reverse it. Officials then demanded that Hogan produce an alternate plan that would address Baltimore's transit deficiencies.

Meeting with city legislators in late July, Rahn said his department would propose changes to the MTA system that he could be accomplished within the current agency budget. Rahn said Thursday that the $135 million to fund the bus system improvements comes from a combination of MTA funds, federal highway money and port projects that weren't ready to move forward.

Rawlings-Blake was not mollified by the new spending.

"I am still left without an answer to what happened to the $736 million in state transportation funding that Governor Hogan took away from the region and redistributed to highway projects across the state," she said.

Nevertheless, Rahn said he hopes to cooperate with the city on several aspects of the plan, including a reduction in duplications between the MTA and the city's free Charm City Circulator. The plan calls for additional state funding to support the circulator.

But the plan also introduces possible confusion because its CityLink plan uses colors to designate the new high-frequency routes. Among them are Purple, Orange, Green — already used by the circulator.

"There's only so many colors," Rahn said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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