There are at least two ways to look at the "transformative" plan Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled today to improve Baltimore regional transit service. The first is that the $135 million package is pretty thin gruel compared to a $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project Mr. Hogan nixed in June. But the second is that the core of plan — making local bus service more efficient and effective — is a worthwhile goal but one that is a lot more challenging and expensive than Mr. Hogan has acknowledged.

First, let's set aside the marginal stuff like switching to color coding to identify buses, installing more bike racks or expanding light rail service by 10 hours on Sundays. What Mr. Hogan really wants to do is patch up a transit system he acknowledged is currently a "mess." If the highest purpose of regional bus and rail travel is to connect people to jobs, the MTA falls woefully short with a poorly planned system that is unreliable, disconnected and often requires city residents to transfer multiple times just to crawl slowly across town.


How would the governor accomplish this? Mainly by a wholesale redirection of buses under the mantle of "BaltimoreLink" through 12 major high-frequency routes, the addition of suburb-to-suburb express lines such as Owings Mills-to-BWI and White Marsh-to-Towson and dedicated north-south and east-west bus lanes downtown (reportedly Charles and Baltimore streets downtown would have bus-only access). He would give signal priority to buses (giving them the ability to electronically change traffic signals to their favor), and upgrade popular transit stations such as the West Baltimore MARC station or Johns Hopkins Bayview to make transfers easier.

He also expects the MTA to alter other local bus routes to accommodate employment opportunities and has directed the agency to conduct an "extensive public outreach" to determine how best to do that. There will be new signs, more police patrols and several "reverse-commute" bus routes linking city residents with jobs centers in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, Annapolis and Kent Island and Columbia. There's even a promise of financial help for Baltimore's highly successful but underfunded Circulator bus system.

On the surface, these are all worthwhile changes to explore (although describing them, even collectively, as "transformative" is quite a stretch). The chief obstacle is what was not said at the announcement: In creating new routes, what will be cut? The MTA tried to update city bus routes in a similar manner under the last Republican governor and ran into a firestorm of protest. With some 55 percent of MTA's customer base dependent on transit, according to a 2013 legislative report, redirecting existing service inevitably winds up helping some while hurting others. About one-fifth of the MTA's 380,000 daily riders are public school students who depend on existing routes.

Even signal prioritization and bus lanes can be an issue to the degree they interfere with street traffic, especially in rush hour. Run buses up and down Charles Street with great frequency, and more drivers will be stuck in east-west congestion waiting for red lights at places like Lombard, Redwood or Centre streets. If, on the other hand, it's the governor's intent to expand bus service and not make cuts, how would he deal with the mandatory farebox recovery rate? New bus routes traditionally take a while before they can build ridership. It's also fair to ask where the $135 million is coming from, considering the administration took great pains this summer to publicly aver that there was no extra money lying around that could be dedicated to Baltimore transportation projects.

Noticeably absent from today's announcement was Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who later issued a statement that was highly critical of the plan and reminded everyone of the $736 million in state aid the city lost when Mr. Hogan canceled the Red Line. It's clear the Hogan administration wasn't especially interested in her input to this point, but without her support, elements of the proposal like the bus lanes or signal prioritization (which the city currently grants only to light rail on Howard Street) won't happen. The mayor may only have one year left in office, but her successor won't necessarily be thrilled with the plan either. Though three candidates showed up to the announcement — former mayor Sheila Dixon, Sen. Catherine Pugh and Councilman Carl Stokes — their interest in the project may be less keen when it inevitably causes the kind of backlash efforts to redraw bus routes have in the past.

But here's an idea: What if Governor Hogan upped the ante and dedicated a great deal more money to the cause (perhaps tapping a half-billion dollars or more of the Red Line funds that are now headed to highway projects in places like the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland)? The more the MTA actually expanded service — as opposed to merely redirecting existing resources — the more likely it will succeed and have broad public support. And here's something else: Why not involve local governments and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the region's chief transportation planning agency, in the development of the plan? The Red Line was a decade in the making; if done correctly, rewriting bus routes will take time, too.

Ultimately, Mr. Hogan may be pointed in the right direction, but it's a bumpy road ahead. Anyone who believes $135 million (less than half the MTA's annual bus operating budget) is enough to fix Baltimore's transportation woes — and that the whole thing can be done by the summer of 2017, as Mr. Hogan promised — might also be in the market to purchase the Brooklyn Bridge. But if the governor is serious and actually wants to make inroads in the difficult transportation and economic challenges facing what he called "Maryland's largest and most important city," he'll need to bring more money and quite a few more elected officials to the table in what should be a highly collaborative process. Otherwise, he's in danger of offering just a gesture, a face-saving but half-hearted effort intended only to blunt the political impact of canceling a light rail project that guaranteed thousands of new jobs and new development opportunities at a time when the city needed them most.