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MTA bus improvement plan, mired in politics, faces uncertain future

The Maryland Transit Administration's signature effort to improve its troubled Baltimore-area bus system — already delayed for nearly a year — faces an uncertain future because of new skepticism from the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan.

The plan was delayed for months because of the 2014 elections, according to internal MTA documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request. Those documents also show a discussion within the agency about stretching the goal of a five-year timeline for improvements to as much as 18 years.

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Newly appointed Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, who oversees the agency, said he had not yet reviewed the proposed timelines but considers anything that stretches the project beyond Hogan's potential second term unrealistic and out of touch with the changing nature of urban transit.

"An 18-year plan is not a plan. Too many things change," said Rahn, who previously headed state transportation agencies in New Mexico and Missouri. Revisions to bus routes, bus stop locations and staffing levels that are sensible today could make little sense 10 years from now, and still less in 18 years, he said.

"Whatever we have to do to improve service — and I agree that service needs to improve — is going to have a much shorter implementation time than 12 to 18 years. What that looks like, I don't know," Rahn said. "It's going to be a plan that we can introduce quickly, and it's going to be something the public will see results from quickly as well."

What that means for the overall rollout of bus network improvements in the Baltimore area is unclear. But riders said change can't come soon enough.

"I hope we're able to come up with a better system to make it better for myself and other people with kids," said Kamilah Epps, a 23-year-old mother of two from Southwest Baltimore who has been working through a culinary course and just got a job at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore. She said late buses on the No. 35 line often leave her stranded.

"It causes me to be late for work sometimes, causes me to be late to pick up my kids."

The bus system, the MTA's most-used service, consumes about a third of its budget. In fiscal 2014, the system had nearly 76 million riders and a budget of about $220 million.

MTA buses link Baltimore and its suburbs, including Columbia in Howard County and White Marsh in Baltimore County. Commuter lines also transport many more suburban residents to job centers in Baltimore and Washington.

But riders have complained that MTA buses are unreliable, dirty and subject to disturbances by rowdy youths.

Ridership on the local bus network fell by more than 4 million riders, or nearly 5.7 percent, from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2014. Officials blamed the decline on bad weather, and said ridership has already rebounded in the first half of 2015 — though it remains slightly below the 2013 level. Ridership revenue is meant to cover 35 percent of the MTA's bus operating budget but hasn't met that mark since 2005.

The MTA launched the Bus Network Improvement Project in 2013 to address widespread complaints about late and crowded buses and poor customer service. The agency was supposed to produce a five-year plan for service improvements by April 2014.

MTA officials have repeatedly said they simply need more time to compile recommendations under the project, which has already cost $850,000.

MTA Administrator Robert L. Smith said he envisions an implementation period of 10 years or less. The longer proposals were developed to show how the agency could reach "the gold-plated option" under current budget constraints.

"If we were going to do this gold-plated option, then obviously cost was a consideration," he said. "It's a matter of how you could space that out."

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Internal emails show that the project was influenced by the 2014 primary and general election.

For instance, in a June 7 email, James Knighton, director of the MTA's Office of Government Affairs, said the timing of briefings for local officials would likely be shaped by the upcoming primary elections. In a follow-up email on June 16, Knighton updated various top-level MTA officials and contractors on the "direction" he had since received from Transportation Department officials.

"1. No outreach of any kind or scheduling meetings until after the primary election on June 24," he wrote, without further explanation. "2. After the primary, I can contact incumbents and (for districts within Baltimore City) the winners of the Democratic primary, since they will be the almost-assured winners of the general election in November to set up briefings on a district-by-district basis or however the legislators want to do it."

After the general election — in which the Republican Hogan won an upset victory in the governor's race — the project was delayed further to allow the incoming administration to review it, the emails show.

Smith said political considerations play a role in any "mega-project," but the MTA's job is "to put in place recommendations that can transcend any political considerations."

Brian O'Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and a leading advocate for a better bus system, agreed with Rahn that implementation of the project over 12 or 18 years doesn't make sense — in part because job centers served by buses can shift. But he hopes Rahn will move quickly on reforms.

"One would hope that he wouldn't have to start from scratch," O'Malley said.

So far under the Bus Network Improvement Project, the MTA has changed and added a handful of bus routes, including to serve the new Amazon distribution center on Broening Highway and other job centers, under what it has referred to as "Phase One" of the project.

The broader project aims to overhaul schedules, in part by splitting "long, cumbersome lines" and increasing "MARC [train] connections, new suburban connections, and a downtown grid," according to the documents obtained by The Sun.

The MTA has already developed long lists of proposed changes and broken them down in terms of costs, but those details were redacted from the documents.

David McClure, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, said union bus operators and mechanics fear the plan will make the system worse and wish the MTA would "scrap" it.

"Let's put everything on the table for folks to really see and give their opinion on, because this is what they pay for. This is what taxpayers pay for," McClure said.

Riders also said they want to see the proposals for revamping the bus system.

Jeff Carmen, 47, of North Highlandtown said unreliable and slow service on the No. 40 and No. 36 lines means he has to get to his neighborhood bus stop two hours before his work shift at a T-Mobile store in Lansdowne in Baltimore County — about 10 miles away — just to make it on time.

Having ridden public transit for 25 years, Carmen would like to switch to a car. But the cost is prohibitive. "You have the car payment, you have insurance — which is astronomical — and after you factor in fuel … and maintenance, you have another mortgage payment," he said.

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Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, who is pushing for a Towson bus system similar to the city's free Charm City Circulator, said there are plenty of area residents who simply forgo using the MTA system because of its poor reputation.

"There's still a feeling among some that the buses are unclean, or late or unsafe," said Marks, a former chief of staff at the state Department of Transportation.

Such complaints about the system have been around for years — as have efforts to improve it.

The last comprehensive review of the bus system occurred under the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich.

That process, known as the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative, was partially rolled out over the course of a few years under the guidance of then-Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan. The program gained steam after Flanagan fired Smith, who at the time was in his first stint as MTA administrator as a holdover from the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

The process — criticized by local residents at the time for the swift and at-times sweeping changes it introduced — was subsequently halted midstream in 2007 after Democrat Martin O'Malley ousted Ehrlich.

Flanagan, now a state delegate representing part of Howard County and a member of the House environment and transportation committee, said that restructuring was an attempt to redraw bus routes that hadn't been changed in 35 years. He characterized it as a success, in part because it dealt quickly with needs seen at the time.

He called the MTA's current option of rolling out a new round of improvements over as many as 18 years "puzzling."

"Where people are living and where they're riding, where their destinations are, is something that changes on an ongoing basis," he said. "New jobs, medical facilities, neighborhoods change, so you don't know what the city is going to look like in 12 or 15 years."

Flanagan said he was "not at all surprised," however, that the improvement plans were delayed ahead of the November elections and again after them, as the new administration stepped in — both realities made clear in the MTA documents.

"Now you have a new administration and I'm sure they don't want to operate just on automatic pilot," Flanagan said.

Rahn said his hands have been full since taking the state's top transportation post, having also been charged with reviewing the MTA's proposed Red Line and Purple Line light rail projects in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.

He is in the middle of the Purple Line review but has only begun a "cursory review" on the Red Line, with much more work to be done, he said. The bus plan will come after that, he said.

Rahn said his approach to major projects is "always about better, faster, cheaper. If we can get 80 percent of improvement for half the money, I think that's a heck of a deal."

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