Missing links in BaltimoreLink bus plan

Elijah Cummings op-ed: BaltimoreLink bus plan already falling short of promises.

Our decisions about transportation determine much more than where roads or bridges or tunnels or rail lines will be built. They determine the connections and barriers that people will encounter in their daily lives — and thus how hard or easy it will be for people to get where they need and want to go.

Groundbreaking new research by Stanford University economics professor Raj Chetty and his colleagues seeks to quantify how the neighborhood in which a child grows up — the connections and barriers that a child experiences — frames the chances for success that child will have in life. Among the 100 jurisdictions studied, a childhood spent in Baltimore resulted in one of the steepest reductions in a child's lifetime earnings.

The connections and barriers in Baltimore have been shaped to a stunning degree by the legacy of poor transportation decisions. Many of the communities in Baltimore in which opportunity is most limited were literally cut in half by the "Road to Nowhere."

And because we built only minimal subway and light rail systems, Baltimore — unlike neighboring Washington, D.C. — is a city in which the bus system remains the primary public transportation conveyance. According to the Bus Network Improvement Project (BNIP) compiled by the MTA in December 2014, MTA's core bus service operates more than 60 bus lines serving more than 6,000 bus stops.

BNIP also reports that more than half of MTA's riders use the core bus network every day, and more than half of bus riders cited getting to their jobs as the purpose of their trips.

Most Baltimore residents who ride the bus choose it because they have few other options. According to BNIP, more than 60 percent of riders on MTA's core bus service did not have access to a personal vehicle.

For many Baltimore residents, the MTA bus service's routes and timings determine the patterns — and the very reach — of their lives.

Many of the Baltimore communities in which opportunity is most limited —and in which access to a private vehicle is lowest — would have been served by the proposed Red Line light rail system.

This is why the governor's decision to cancel the Red Line and walk away from as much as $900 million in federal funding that could have been invested in that project was a decision about more than just a rail line. It was a decision that will shape the connections and barriers that will continue to define the geography of our city and its residents' lives for decades to come.

After canceling the Red Line, the governor announced that he would make an investment of $135 million to redesign the Baltimore bus system and provide "more reliable and timely transit" and "better connections to jobs."

While operating its bus system efficiently is the basic responsibility of any transit system, the governor promised his initiative, known as the BaltimoreLink plan, would be more than just a route realignment — it would transform the entire system.

Unfortunately, the MTA has already found that the changes proposed in the BaltimoreLink plan will not appreciably reduce travel times.

This is deeply disappointing because, according to a study released by the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota, a typical resident of the Baltimore-Towson region can reach fewer than 138,000 of our region's 1.2 million jobs in under an hour using public transportation. As a result, a Baltimore resident who relies on the MTA for transportation must travel for a prolonged period to access many of the region's jobs — or seek only those jobs that are closer to home.

And now, a study issued by the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA) to coincide with the end of the second public comment period for BaltimoreLink has found that there is "great variability" in the effects of the changes proposed under the plan. Some — but not all — areas of the city would gain improved access to jobs on weekdays, and access to jobs might actually be reduced on weekends.

That the BaltimoreLink plan may not be transformative is not surprising, given that the $135 million in additional funding the governor is prepared to provide to the bus system is less than half the money spent just planning the Red Line and equates to 1.4 percent of MTA's operating expenses, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

What is surprising is that the governor's administration would dismiss CMTA's report as "complete nonsense."

The administration's willingness to redraw the network could be a great chance for the MTA to create the new connections local residents need — but only if the administration takes seriously all the comments it receives and makes the investments necessary to achieve the transformations Baltimore was promised.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is a Democratic congressman from Baltimore and a senior member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. His email is Rep.Cummings@Mail.House.Gov.

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