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MTA plans significant reductions to bus, MARC service next year amid coronavirus losses

The Maryland Transit Administration proposed plans Tuesday to slash its bus service in the Baltimore region next year by 20% — eliminating 25 bus lines and reducing service on 12 others — due to falling fare revenue and reduced funding from other sources caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The MTA also said it would pare back its MARC train and Commuter Bus service in an effort to “optimize transit service for core bus riders, especially transit-dependent households.”

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The proposal would discontinue all nine Express Bus routes, which provide limited-stop service between the suburbs and the city, and 16 LocalLink routes that have lower ridership or are accessible by another route.

The state also is seeking to reduce service frequency on a dozen other LocalLink routes.

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The changes, scheduled to go into effect Jan. 3, would affect an estimated 3.6% of riders, more than half of whom still would have a transit stop within a quarter mile of their homes, the MTA said.

“The financial impact created by the COVID-19 crisis has created an unparalleled challenge for transit agencies across the U.S., and many are facing difficult decisions,” MTA chief Kevin Quinn said in a statement. “MDOT MTA will continue to strive for a safe, reliable and equitable transit system that provides opportunity to all citizens in the Baltimore region.”

But top officials in Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties were alarmed by the planned cuts, which municipal leaders called “a disappointing blow to the entire Baltimore metropolitan region and the many students, essential workers, and families who rely on public transportation each day.”

Pam Brickell is one of them. She waited for a LocalLink 91 bus — one of the routes being cut — at Mondawmin on her way home Tuesday to Cylburn from work at the Rotunda in Hampden on Tuesday.

Brickell is the main source of income for her family and without the bus route, she’d be at a loss for what to do, since she doesn’t have a car.

”That’s the only bus that comes down that line, and it’s already awful,” she said.

Frank Saunders depends on the LocalLink 83 bus to commute between Pikesville and Johns Hopkins Bayview. He said he’s not the only one who would suffer from reduced service on the line.

“There’s a whole lot of people that [live] out Pikesville and come to town, so it would be a big problem,” he said.

In addition to LocalLink 91, the MTA has proposed eliminating LocalLink routes 21, 34, 38, 51, 52, 53, 57, 59, 70, 71, 73, 81, 82, 92 and 95, and Express Bus routes 103, 104, 105, 115, 120, 150, 154, 160, and 164. The LocalLink routes where the MTA proposed reduced service are 28, 29, 31, 33, 37, 62, 67, 76, 75, 77, 83 and 87.

The MTA will solicit public feedback on the proposal in a series of 10 virtual public hearings between Oct. 5 and Oct. 16. The 30-day public review and comment period will end Nov. 15.

Transit ridership is down across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and advocates have warned of looming service cuts in their calls to Congress for relief funding for mass transit systems.

Ridership plunged by up to 90% in some areas of the country as people stayed home due to COVID-19, but MTA bus ridership dropped by only about 60% in Baltimore, whose residents are one of the most transit-reliant populations in the country.

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The service cuts represent about $43 million, or 5% of the MTA’s operating budget for the 2021 fiscal year, according to the agency.

The state’s six-year draft transportation capital budget, also released Tuesday, is set to shrink by $2.9 billion from the previous one, due largely to $1.9 billion in cuts to its agencies’ capital budgets.

The MTA wants to cut $150 million from its six-year capital budget by deferring equipment replacement, bus division upgrades, parking lot maintenance and state funding for local transit systems.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Council President Brandon Scott, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball issued a joint statement on the proposed service cuts.

The said the MTA’s proposal will hurt students, whom Hogan wants to return to in-person learning, and essential workers, from cleaning staff to doctors and nurses, who are responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

“This decision will disproportionately impact our poor, Black and Brown residents, especially those living in historically-disinvested neighborhoods,” they said. “Particularly during a public health emergency that continues to have devastating impacts, we should not seek to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable.”

Before the coronavirus, the MTA already faced a $2 billion backlog of spending needs over the next decade — money needed to keep the agency’s transit systems running safely, in compliance with regulatory requirements, and enhanced with new technology and mobility options, according to the agency.

The Purple Line construction, subway cars and signal system replacement, light rail vehicle overhaul and bus purchasing are expected to be spared from the cuts, according to state officials.

Light rail and subway service would not be affected, according to the MTA. But officials hope to save $1 million in the 2021 operating budget by reducing overtime, MTA spokeswoman Veronica Battisti said.

Amid plans to eliminate and pare back some bus routes, the MTA wants to increase service on others.

Officials seeks to increase frequency on LocalLinks 56 and 78, which provide service to Grace Medical Center, formerly Bon Secours Hospital, and Johns Hopkins Hospital. It also would add more service to LocalLink 69, which connects to MedStar Harbor Hospital and the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie.

The changes would modify the alignments of 13 routes, including the CityLink Red, Silver and Lime, and the LocalLink 26, 36, 63 and 94, which will receive additional service to cover gaps in access, the MTA said.

On the MARC Penn Line, the MTA would discontinue most of its service to Perryville, with the midday Train 520 terminating at Baltimore Penn Station on Monday-Thursday and continuing to Perryville only on Fridays. Evening train 548 would stop at Baltimore Penn Station on Monday-Friday.

Morning, northbound Penn Line service from Union Station on trains 410 and 418 would be eliminated, as would the morning, southbound service from Baltimore Penn Station on Train 423.

Camden Line MARC trains would be affected, as well. The Eastbound Train 844 in the morning and Train 848 in the afternoon would be discontinued, and Westbound Train 855 from Dorsey Station would no longer operate in the afternoon.

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Two commuter bus routes would be discontinued: Route 210 between Kent Island and downtown Baltimore, and Route 215 between downtown Baltimore and Annapolis. The agency wants to reduce service frequency on 20 other commuter bus routes with low ridership: 201, 203, 204, 220, 230, 240, 260, 305, 315, 320, 325, 345, 410, 411, 420, 505, 705, 715, 810, and 840.

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The cuts threaten to permanently worsen the MTA’s “already insufficient transit system,” said the transit advocacy group Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and the bicycling advocacy group Bikemore.

“Once cuts take effect, there is no guarantee they will ever be reversed,” the groups said in a joint statement.

The cuts would be the latest service interruption for the roughly one in three people in Baltimore who don’t have cars and rely on the MTA’s buses, light rail, subway and MARC trains. Tuesday’s announcement came less than two months after the agency restored full service after scaling it back in March due to the pandemic.

With fare boxes closed for months due to riders boarding from the back, and other transportation revenues depleted, the state-owned MTA reported $550 million in lost revenue attributed to COVID-19 in the fiscal year that ended in June. Officials expect an equally large shortfall this year.

The agency received $392 million in funding from the federal CARES Act. But that money is expected to run out by the end of the month, the MTA says.

But with no more federal relief funding on the horizon, the state must “manage the fiscal impact of COVID-19 through operating and capital budget reductions,” according to the MTA.

Baltimore Sun reporter Sameer Rao contributed to this article.

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