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Maryland

Baltimore County residents push back against transit proposals to speed riders between downtown Baltimore and Lutherville

As Michael Scepaniak addressed a crowded meeting in Timonium, a smattering of “boos” emerged from the audience.

Scepaniak spoke in favor of proposals by the Maryland Transit Administration to connect Timonium and Towson to Baltimore City with either light rail, subway or dedicated bus lane service along York Road or Loch Raven Boulevard.

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And he was clearly in the minority of the 300 people attending the meeting last month.

“I don’t want to label people, but the shorthand for it is just a very NIMBY approach to anything that’s new in their area,” Scepaniak said in an interview afterward, using the acronym for “not in my backyard.”

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The seven proposed routes sparked sharp debate this fall among neighbors on social media sites like Nextdoor and drew some 1,600 public comments during a 60-day period, as residents voiced concerns about the loss of lanes for regular traffic along already busy streets.

While the proposals are being discussed during the closing months of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration, their future is in the hands of incoming Democratic Gov. Wes Moore.

In a statement, Brian Jones, a spokesman for Moore, said the incoming administration is reviewing the proposals.

“All options are on the table,” Jones said. “I don’t think anyone in the Baltimore metropolitan area is satisfied with the transportation options available — nor should they be.”

A screengrab of a Maryland Transit Administration presentation shows seven options for a transit route: Lutherville to University of Maryland Medical Center by (1) light rail or (2) rapid bus along York Road and Greenmount Avenue; (3) Towson to Harbor East on bus rapid transit along York/Greenmount; Towson to Port Covington via (4) subway under York/Greenmount or (5) rapid bus along York-Greenmount; (6) Lutherville to Otterbein by light rail along Goucher and Loch Raven boulevards; (7) Towson to Harbor East via rapid bus along Joppa Road and Loch Raven Boulevard.

The proposed routes begin either at Towson Town Center or the Lutherville light rail station, and end in Harbor East, at the University of Maryland Medical Center or at the Baltimore Peninsula development at Port Covington. One is a subway that would cost an estimated $6.22 billion. Several others are light rail routes with sections in underground tunnels, while the rest are bus routes with dedicated lanes.

The current CityLink Red bus, which connects Lutherville and the city, is consistently the most heavily traveled in the transit administration’s system, said agency spokesman Jerimiah Moerke. Riders made 240,000 trips using the route in September — 15% more than the second-most popular line.

The new north-south project is in its formative stages, with no dedicated funding. The agency estimates the two light rail options would cost $1.3 billion and $4 billion each, while bus rapid transit could cost between $500 million and $600 million.

Up next is an “alternatives analysis” phase, which would involve a more detailed look at how stations on the routes would be designed and how they would impact traffic, Moerke said. Then would come the selection of a “locally preferred alternative” route to advance for possible federal funding. With funds, design could begin, followed by construction. The process would take years.

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Kathleen Beadell, incoming president of the Greater Timonium Community Council, warned that the proposals impacting Lutherville would worsen traffic along the York Road corridor by removing current lanes, disrupting a key suburban shopping artery.

“Why can’t we just keep our lovely suburbia?” Beadell said. “Who made the rule that we had to become more urban?”

Plenty of residents — including Baltimore County Council members on both sides of the political aisle — share her opinion, arguing mass transit could deal a blow to the suburban way of life and come at a steep price.

Beadell questioned why some of the proposed routes wind their way into Lutherville-Timonium at all, rather than simply connecting Towson and Baltimore.

But advocacy groups like the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance say connecting new lines to existing infrastructure, such as current light rail stops and Amtrak’s Penn Station, is critical. According to a transit administration presentation, connecting to the Lutherville light rail station would add about 4,000 potential riders to the new line.

“If we built something where it just dead-ended in Towson and it didn’t connect to the existing light rail … In hindsight, we’ll look back and be like: ‘Oh, we got so close. Why didn’t we just connect them?’” said Eric Norton, the alliance’s director of policy and programs.

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The alliance prefers the proposals — one light rail and one bus — that run all the way south to the newly renamed Baltimore Peninsula.

Another priority, Norton said, is establishing as direct a connection between Towson and the city as possible, preferably along the York Road/Greenmount Avenue corridor, rather than swinging east to Loch Raven Boulevard, as two of the proposals suggest.

A CityLink Red bus travels Dec. 13, 2022, along York Road in Towson during the morning rush hour.

What about the Red Line?

Before releasing the ideas for serving the Towson area, the transit administration this summer proposed several routes that would run east-west through the city.

For transit advocates still bitter over Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line light rail project seven years ago, the announcement felt like whiplash. Most of the transit administration’s potential alternatives were dedicated bus lanes — also called bus rapid transit. One looked remarkably similar to the original Red Line plan, which would have connected the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in East Baltimore.

When Hogan nixed the Red Line in 2015, he called it a “boondoggle.” The state returned $900 million to the federal government, money that had been expected to help pay for the $2.9 million project.

In a statement, Jones, the spokesperson for Moore, called reviving the Red Line a “core priority” for the new administration. Still, Moore’s team plans to review the latest east-west proposals from the transit administration.

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“While we view the Red Line as a critical piece of infrastructure that should never have been halted, we know that no single piece of policy or infrastructure is the cure-all to transportation issues and economic development in the region,” Jones said. “We will assess the MTA’s current proposals and work with all relevant stakeholders to determine the best path forward.”

The new east-to-west proposals frustrated Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition. Advocates, elected officials and communities near possible Red Line stations put in a great deal of work on the original light rail plan, he said, and these new proposals feel like starting from square one.

“It’s simply: ‘These are some ideas we’ll toss out.’ But they don’t have a basis and connection to a plan that has already been fully funded and fully approved,” said Jordan, calling for a reevaluation of the Red Line light rail final environmental impact study.

In a statement, Moerke, a transit administration spokesman, said the new proposals could serve as a foundation for future decisions.

“Any decision to revisit the Red Line will require additional analysis that accounts for how conditions have changed since 2015, and what the travel needs and feasibility challenges are today,” Moerke said. “Advancing MDOT MTA’s ongoing East-West Corridor Study will help to answer these questions.”

Maryland Transit Administration buses wait Dec. 1, 2022, at a light on Gay Street in downtown Baltimore. The CityLink Red route runs north and south, and goes from downtown into Towson.

Commuters’ takes

As a drizzle started to fall on a misty December morning in Towson, Jobaer Amin raised the hood of his raincoat. Standing at the CityLink Red bus stop across the road from Towson Town Center — one without a shelter or a bench — is the first leg of his daily commute to Johns Hopkins Hospital, he said.

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For Amin, the bus route is a big help. It means he doesn’t have to buy a car or pay to park it near the hospital. But it’s flawed, too.

Sometimes — without much warning — a driver will announce the route is ending early at Greenmount Cemetery, Amin said. Riders have to get off and wait for the next bus. Some days, Amin walks several blocks to a Johns Hopkins shuttle stop on St. Paul Street to finish his commute.

If the CityLink Red bus received a dedicated lane, some of the scheduling problems might be improved, he said. He would prefer a light rail line in the long run, but recognizes it would take more time to build.

“Light rail is definitely a good idea. But it takes time,” he said. “For now, a dedicated express bus definitely would help.”

John Bell of Baltimore waits for a bus at North Calvert and Fayette streets on Dec. 1, 2022.

But other commuters aren’t so sure that a dedicated bus lane or a new light rail line would fix the transit administration’s woes, including Micah Mysiuk, a daily CityLink Red commuter from Govans in North Baltimore to downtown.

“The red line is a monster,” Mysiuk said. “More often than not, it’s standing room only in the afternoon and in the evening. Senior citizens will fall down if the bus driver hits the stop too hard. People are on edge, getting into fights on the bus because it’s so stressful and packed. A lot of people will get off at stops that aren’t their stops just to get off the bus.”

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Mysiuk said the agency’s Transit app does a terrible job communicating to riders when buses are canceled. And he feels crowding on buses is a product of too few buses and drivers — a problem a dedicated bus lane wouldn’t fix.

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“You’re still going to have the same number of people sitting at the bus stops, and you’ll still have the same amount of people, roughly, getting moved along the routes at the same pace, unless there’s more buses or better bus coordination.”

Still, the transit administration’s interest in expanding Baltimore’s infrastructure is encouraging, Mysiuk said.

”I’m all for that,” he said. “But that doesn’t absolve them from the fact that they’re squandering opportunities right now to make things better for Baltimoreans.”

Bus rider John Bell said he always tries to board near the beginning of the CityLink Red line at Fayette and Eutaw streets downtown to avoid the crowds. Standing at a Fayette Street stop on a recent morning, Bell said the cramped conditions on the CityLink Red demonstrate the need for more buses, especially during morning rush hour.

“It’s convenient. It’s on time. But it gets crowded after Charles Street,” said Bell, who takes the bus north to Greenmount Avenue and walks to his home on Monument Street.

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Bell traced the pink line light rail option on a map of the transit administration’s seven proposals for the north-south corridor, puzzling over the thought of ripping up the road and disrupting businesses along Greenmount Avenue during its construction.

“Add another bus line,” Bell suggested.


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