BaltimoreLink, Gov. Larry Hogan’s overhaul of the Maryland Transit Administration regional bus system, has fallen short of delivering the “transformational” transit he promised, according to an analysis released Thursday by a rider advocacy group.
The route redesign gave slightly more residents access to high-frequency transit and high-opportunity jobs, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance wrote in a 46-page report. But in the group’s analysis, buses did not come as often as the MTA reports and overall access to jobs dropped slightly.
The transportation alliance criticized the MTA for not tracking average trip time — an improvement of which had been one goal of the overhaul — and changing the way it classifies “on-time,” which the group said made it difficult to evaluate whether the bus system had become more reliable in the past year.
“BaltimoreLink was an opportunity to improve the MTA’s performance,” the report said. “We offer this report based on the principle from business management that you can’t improve what you can’t measure.”
MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn said he had read the report and was glad the alliance recognized the increase in high-frequency service. But he disagreed that the change to the agency’s on-time measurements meant reliability couldn’t be evaluated.
When BaltimoreLink launched, the agency expanded its definition of “on time” from within five minutes of the scheduled time to within seven minutes — the standard used by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
The MTA used the new definition to calculate that its previous on-time rate had been 59.5 percent. Using that same measure, LocalLink buses now arrive and depart on time about 68 percent of the time, and the high-frequency CityLink buses arrive within their promised 10- to 15-minute intervals 73 percent of the time, according to the agency.
“Our old numbers and our new numbers are apples-to-apples comparisons,” Quinn said.
The buses still fall short of their top goal: a systemwide on-time rate of 80 percent.
To document bus arrival times, transportation alliance staff and volunteers stood at bus stops for one to two hours in June and August of 2017, and again in May of this year, according to the report.
Using the MTA’s new metrics, they found that 60 percent, not 68 percent, of LocalLink buses arrived on time, and that fewer than a third, not nearly three quarters, of CityLink buses arrived on time in May, the report said.
Quinn argued that the MTA’s numbers are more accurate than a sample taken by people standing at bus stops, because the agency tracks it with real-time GPS devices.
“Our data is based on GPS technology and is not somewhat of a random sampling,” he said.
But standing at a bus stop is how riders evaluate the system every day, argued Brian O’Malley, president of the alliance.
“I actually wonder if that’s the difference between what people experience and what the MTA reports,” he said.
Funding was another concern the report raised. MTA capital funding is scheduled for a 58 percent cut from the 2019 fiscal year to the 2023 fiscal year, it said.
Quinn said that’s because the agency spent significantly more than usual in the 2018 fiscal year on the Purple Line, MARC locomotives and positive train control, a renovation of the Kirk Bus Division, a light rail overhaul and new metro cars.
The MTA chief called the funding analysis “a misunderstanding of how the budgeting process works.”
“Big projects are coming to completion,” Quinn said. “It just so happens that FY18 is a pretty substantial budget year for us.”
The Maryland General Assembly approved legislation in April requiring an extra $178 million in allocations over three years to the MTA. It mandates at least a 4.4 percent increase in the MTA’s $1.6 billion operating budget for each of the three years starting in mid-2019, and capital budget increases of $29 million a year above current spending levels for those three years.
Quinn said he was frustrated the report did not highlight new routes to job centers, including TradePoint Atlantic and BWI Marshall Airport’s Midfield Air Cargo Complex.
BaltimoreLink resulted in a 7 percent increase in the number of residents with access to full-day, high-frequency transit, according to the report. But the overall number of jobs within 45 minutes or less of public transportation in the region decreased by 6 percent during the week and 9 percent on Sunday mornings.
“In our spring 2018 analysis of access to jobs we did not see dramatic improvement,” the report said.
The alliance used different models, which showed potential trips, than the MTA, which surveyed riders.
“The way they measured job access doesn’t take into account real-world travel patterns and data,” Quinn said.
The alliance offered five recommendations for the MTA as it continues to work to upgrade the bus system: Improve transparency, prioritize transit, focus on frequency, reverse MTA budget cuts, and produce a transit plan for the central Maryland region.
The system has potential, but it needs more investment to perform up to expectations, O’Malley said.