Is BaltimoreLink really better? Show us the data

This weekend, the Maryland Transit Administration implemented BaltimoreLink, a complete overhaul of the Baltimore region’s bus network, which has long struggled with circuitous routes, an unrealistic schedule and poor on-time performance.

Despite having a fleet of 750 buses, Greater Baltimore has far too many residents for whom transportation is a barrier to economic opportunity. According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance in approximately a third of Baltimore’s neighborhoods more than 25 percent of workers endure long commutes (at least 45 minutes one way). We cannot miss this opportunity to get better results from our transportation system.

Surveys and studies of ridership trends make clear what Americans look for in public transportation: frequent, reliable, reasonably speedy service that stops within a comfortable walk of jobs, housing, retail and services. When Gov. Larry Hogan announced BaltimoreLink in October 2015 he promised “more reliable and timely transit experience” with “better connections to jobs.” The official BaltimoreLink website mentions “job centers,” “reliability” and “access to high-frequency transit” among the benefits. While saying that these aspects of the service will improve is encouraging, riders want to see results.

From the time BaltimoreLink was first announced, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, an initiative of the Baltimore Community Foundation, has been asking one question: Will we be better off? We should not make big changes just for the sake of change or to have a prettier map. The public deserves to know if BaltimoreLink is actually better than the old system.

During the first public feedback period on BaltimoreLink’s first draft, we challenged the MTA to be more specific. “It is crucial,” we wrote in January 2016, “to develop standards by which we can measure the effectiveness of the new system and continue to monitor bus network performance on an on-going basis.”

When a second draft of BaltimoreLink was released in July of 2016, MTA identified dozens of metrics and created a computer model of the proposed network. In public workshops that summer MTA officials provided more detail on what would and would not improve. For example, MTA’s model showed that under BaltimoreLink, 33,600 more residents will have access to a bus stop or train platform within a short distance from home. Unfortunately, this model also showed the average amount of time it will take to make a trip on the system will not improve.

These presentations during summer 2016 turned out to be the high point for the MTA’s sharing of performance measures with the public. Today, we see no performance measures published on the BaltimoreLink website. That is a problem. Consider stated benefits such as “improves service quality” or “strengthens connections” — in 6 months, or a year, we will find those to be too vague and subjective for evaluating progress unless the MTA establishes performance measures for each.

More work is also needed to establish baseline values for each performance measure and to monitor progress over time. Last summer, the MTA spoke of a “before and after study” using measures like average transit trip time and access to high-frequency transit. The MTA should publish updated results now that the new system has been finalized and again in a year.

Other stakeholders, including Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh and the General Assembly can and should hold the MTA accountable for monitoring and reporting performance against the promised benefits of BaltimoreLink over time.

To do our part to improve BaltimoreLink, the Transportation Alliance has worked to establish third-party performance measures. In a September 2016 report titled Will We Be Better Off? we analyzed whether people will have better access to jobs, schools and healthy foods.

Unfortunately, instead of using our independent assessment as a tool to help identify areas for improving the BaltimoreLink plan, a spokesman for Governor Hogan dismissed our report as “complete nonsense.” The MTA then refused our request for data to check the next version of its plan for improvements. Last winter, the MTA’s public presentations no longer included information on the performance measures it had reported in the summer.

In the absence of transparency we’re going to be really hard pressed to assess whether this is working.

Now that the planning is behind us and BaltimoreLink is a reality, we remember the promises regarding reliable, timely transit that will provide more efficient access to jobs.

In October 2015, Governor Hogan said BaltimoreLink will be “transformative.” And as recently as February, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said “it will be a huge leap forward in transportation for Baltimore.”

Our response: Prove it. Show the public the results.

Brian O’Malley (bomalley@cmtalliance.org) is president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, where Eric Norton (enorton@cmtalliance.org) is director of policy and programs.

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