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Transportation alliance critical of MTA's plan to overhaul bus routes

Transportation alliance critical of MTA's plan to overhaul bus routes
Maryland Transit Administration officials released significant revisions to a draft plan for an overhaul of Baltimore's bus system. MTA officials point out the altered routes on a map at State Center Tuesday. (Colin Campbell / Baltimore Sun)

A transportation advocacy group warned Thursday that the Maryland Transit Administration's plan to overhaul bus routes around Baltimore "falls well short" of better connecting people to jobs, schools and healthy food.

The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance is calling on the MTA to spend more money building bus-only lanes and installing traffic signals that would allow buses to swiftly move through the city. The state also should do more to improve access for people in low- and middle-wage jobs, the group said.

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Brian O'Malley, the alliance's president, said the planned bus system would run better for residents in some city neighborhoods than others, and service would decrease on weekends. The new plan is set to take effect in June.

"It's not surprising when we look at the funding," he said. "The state so far is not meaningfully increasing the resources the MTA has to work with. You would expect to see gains in some neighborhoods offset by losses in others."

BaltimoreLink, as the plan released last year is known, would cost $135 million over six years, including $65 million for capital expenses and $70 million for operations. O'Malley said that represents a less than 2 percent increase in MTA's annual operating budget.

"The transit pie is not growing," he said, "It's just getting resliced."

O'Malley said the alliance wants the MTA, under Gov. Larry Hogan's administration, to adjust their plans. He said the MTA needs to respond to "an urgent need" in the area for public transportation that could improve the lives of people living in poverty.

"The Baltimore region has some very low opportunity neighborhoods that are in that situation because of decades of transportation decisions," he said. "It is critical that we don't pile on with this one."

The alliance is calling on elected officials and senior government staff to act, O'Malley said.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer called the report "complete nonsense." He said the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance "is extremely biased at best."

"They became frequent critics of the Hogan administration when their pet project, the Red Line, did not move forward," Mayer said. "Instead of misleading the public, they should join with MTA on their mission to transform and vastly improve Baltimore's bus system — an effort that is well underway."

O'Malley said the alliance's only bias is toward goals such as shorter commute times and creating better access to the job. He said the group wants to partner with the MTA to improve the bus network overhaul.

MTA Administrator Paul Comfort defended BaltimoreLink in a four-page letter to the alliance this week, calling it a "top-to-bottom overhaul and redesign of a 50-plus year-old bus network." He said the plan includes bus-only dedicated lanes, a transfer hub, expanded commuter buses, new bicycle amenities and a rebranding.

"At every stage of the process, MTA has sought input from the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and has worked proactively and collaboratively to share and thoroughly explain our plans to transform the public transit network in the Baltimore region," Comfort wrote.

Comfort also took issue with the report's methodology, saying it had an "express intent of criticizing" the plan. He added that the new network would provide hundreds more service hours on weekends than the current system.

O'Malley said the alliance spent $25,000 to hire a consultant with Smart Growth America to produce the study using computer models of today's MTA transit network and comparing it to the one proposed.

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According to the alliance's findings, the new routes would, on average, provide access to slightly more jobs, schools and healthy food sources on weekdays. Opportunities would vary depending on where residents live.

People in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood would have access to 5 percent fewer jobs with those in East Baltimore's Berea neighborhood able to access 8 percent more, the analysis showed. Access to key job centers, such as Woodlawn, Columbia and Linthicum, would not be improved.

The report also says that the new system would not considerably increase the number of schools that children could access within 45 minutes or less and only "marginally" improves access to stores that sell healthy food.

O'Malley said average travel time under the retooled bus routes would remain at nearly an hour, about the same as under the current system.

In a statement released Thursday, the MTA said it had received over 2,000 public comments and has held more than 200 public workshops and meetings on BaltimoreLink. The agency noted that the Baltimore Metropolitan Council found that the plan would increase the number of jobs accessible within 30 minutes on transit would increase by 20 percent under the plan.

It is unclear how much more the alliance wants the state to spend on the overhaul. The report recommends more money be allocated to pay for dedicated bus lanes, a coordinated traffic signal system and enhanced operations, but it does not say how much.

The alliance also recommends that an oversight board be created to improve MTA's "accountability and transparency."

Comfort defended the MTA's efforts to be transparent. He said since BaltimoreLink was announced the agency has held more than 200 meetings and received more than 2,000 comments, resulting in modified plans for routes, frequencies and services.

When the state announced the new system after canceling the Red Line light rail, officials said the goal was to get rid of the long waits and reduce a downtown Baltimore bottleneck by shortening and consolidating bus routes into 12 high-frequency lines.

The alliance supported the Red Line and was critical of Hogan's decision to abandon the 14-mile light rail to Woodlawn on the west to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center on the east.

This month, the advocacy group also criticized recent changes to nearly half of the city's bus schedules, saying the changes were poorly publicized.

MTA officials said schedule adjustments are regularly made to improve reliability, and Comfort said the "tone and content" of the alliance's criticism was "puzzling" given that the group claims to be a partner in improving regional transit.

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