Baltimore transit needs local oversight, more funding, regional transportation report says

Baltimore’s public transportation system — its buses, light rail, subway and commuter trains — ought to be under more local control, according to a report released Monday by the Greater Washington Partnership, an organization of CEOs from Baltimore to Richmond focused on promoting the region’s prosperity.

The Capital Region Blueprint for Regional Mobility notes that the Baltimore’s transit system, run by the Maryland Transit Administration, a state agency which reports to the governor, is one of only a few in the country owned and operated by the state, rather than a regional authority or local transportation department. That’s a problem, according to the report, because “state officials are accountable to constituents across Maryland, many of whom do not live in Baltimore and may not share Baltimore’s goals.”

“Under this structure, Baltimore’s public transportation system has not kept pace with repair and service needs or developed a strategy to enhance existing service,” the Greater Washington Partnership wrote. “This governance and funding structure must be reformed … to create a truly regional rapid and reliable transit system in the Baltimore metro area.”

The blueprint, developed over the past 16 months, incorporates proposals from stakeholders across the region and contains high-level transportation recommendations for Maryland, Virginia and Washington, focused on connecting the region, improving consumer experience, ensuring equitable access and integrating innovation.

The partnership was established in 2016 by a group of 17 CEOs, including Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels, and T. Rowe Price Group President and CEO Bill Stromberg.

The group’s report recommended specific actions the region could take to strengthen regional transportation. Aside from increased local oversight, some of the Baltimore-specific actions include:

» Integrating the MTA’s MARC commuter train with Washington’s Virginia Railway Express (VRE) train.

» Renovating the Baltimore & Potomac (B&P) Tunnel.

» Redeveloping Baltimore’s Penn Station.

» Completing the Baltimore Greenway Trails Network.

» Increasing the speed and reliability of Baltimore’s transit system, while establishing a bold vision for an expanded system.

Strengthening the overall Capital Region’s transportation options will enable economic and social mobility for those without cars while helping recruit and retain young talent to the area, Greater Washington Partnership CEO Jason Miller said in a statement.

"Now more than ever, we must move forward together to transform the region’s transportation system, with a special focus on our transit system that currently holds us back from our full potential,” Miller said.

The MTA welcomed the blueprint, said spokeswoman Veronica Battisti, who pointed to the BaltimoreLink overhaul of the region’s bus routes and the spending planned to bring the Metro Subway, Light Rail and MARC train systems into a state of good repair as examples of investments in the area’s transportation system. She did not respond to a question about local oversight.

The agency “maintains ongoing investment for state of good repair for both bus and rail networks in addition to the substantial investment currently underway to modernize, upgrade and improve the reliability of the entire MDOT MTA fleet,” Battisti said in a statement.

Mass transit is among the Baltimore region’s top challenges, the report found. Nearly three-quarters of the people who live in the Baltimore region can get to its roughly 1.4 million jobs within 45 minutes by car, the report said, but public transportation only offers access to 6 percent of those jobs within that amount of time.

Battisti said the addition of bus routes to Tradepoint Atlantic and the Mid-Field Cargo Complex at BWI demonstrate the MTA’s focus of creating access to jobs.

“Under BaltimoreLink, we’ve created a more efficient and reliable bus network which maximized access to high-frequency transit, strengthened connections between MDOT MTA’s bus and rail routes and aligned the network with existing and emerging job centers,” Battisti wrote.

The 145-year-old B&P Tunnel costs Amtrak millions of dollars per year due to its deterioration, and its curved path restricts trains to less than 30 mph, delaying MARC passengers, too.

The Maryland Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration completed design plans in March 2017 to straighten the tunnel and expand it to four tracks, but neither the state nor the federal government has put forward money for construction. Replacing the tunnel would cost $4.5 billion and save more than 20,000 passengers a combined 850 hours in travel each day, the report said.

“The existing tunnel creates a safety and economic risk since the region’s rail service does not have alternate routes to use in the event of a disruption due to maintenance or an emergency,” the Greater Washington Partnership wrote.

Those who drive, too, shoulder some of the burden. Congestion in the region costs Baltimore-area drivers $1,100 annually, and costs D.C. drivers more than $1,800, the highest amount for any metro area in the country, the report said. And the cost could grow, with up to half of all vehicle trip times spent sitting in traffic by 2040, up from 30 percent today.

Maryland is creating a $50 million network of 14 smart signal corridors on heavily traveled state routes, which already has reduced drive times along Harford County routes by 13 percent, the Greater Washington Partnership said.

The regional mobility blueprint does not specifically mention Gov. Larry Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line, a $2.9 billion east-west Light Rail line, or his plan to spend $9 billion on express toll lanes on the Interstate 495 Capital Beltway, I-270 between Frederick and D.C., and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

The creation this year of the Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan Commission, a group which will lay out goals for Baltimore-area public transportation and ways to meet those goals with a combination of existing and new solutions, was “a step in the right direction,” the Greater Washington Partnership said.

“While a visionary plan that focuses specifically on the needs of the Baltimore metro area is sorely needed, implementing that plan will require leadership that is just as regionally focused and regionally accountable,” the report said.

In a statement, John Porcari, former U.S. deputy secretary of transportation under President Barack Obama and Maryland transportation secretary under Gov. Martin O’Malley, called the report “a consensus, yet ambitious, strategy for our region and brings together the best public policy experts the region has to offer.”

Miller added: “We are ready to work with the Maryland Transit Administration and the Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan Commission to establish an actionable strategy for the first time in more than a quarter century to create a high-performing transit system to better serve Baltimore’s residents and businesses.”

The report’s recommendations include:

1. Modernize Intercity and Commuter Rail

  • Streamline Planning and Secure Funding for Projects That Remove Bottlenecks Limiting the Rail System’s Speed, Frequency, Reliability, and Growth
  • Create a Redevelopment Compact to Expand and Modernize Union Station; Redevelop Baltimore Penn Station and Staples Mill Station
  • Create a Seamless Commuter Rail Network by Expanding and Integrating MARC and VRE Services

2. Improve Roadway and Trail Performance

  • Expand and Coordinate the Region’s Highway Performance-Driven Toll Lane Network
  • Investigate a System to Charge Drivers Entering the Washington Metro Area’s Most Congested Central Business Districts
  • Complete the Baltimore Greenway Trails Network and Capital Trails Network, and Establish a Richmond Trail Network Strategy

3. Create High-Performing Public Transit

  • Increase the speed and reliability of Baltimore’s transit system while establishing a bold vision for an expanded system
  • Optimize Washington’s bus network and enhance coordination of the metro area’s public transportation options
  • Expand rapid transit options to better connect consumers with essential destinations throughout the Richmond metro area

4. Grow Employer Mobility Programs

  • Challenge the region’s employers to implement game-changing commuter programs to enhance talent attraction and collectively reduce congestion during peak travel periods
  • Create a Redevelopment Compact to Expand and Modernize Union Station; Redevelop Baltimore Penn Station and Staples Mill Station

5. Expand Access to Opportunity

  • Increase density and ensure inclusive development in areas near rapid transit corridors
  • Adopt local and targeted hiring, procurement, and contracting policies

6. Enable Technology-Driven Future

  • Build a regional data management system to power all technology actions and improve regional mobility
  • Adopt local and targeted hiring, procurement, and contracting policies
  • Deploy regionally coordinated smart traffic signals to reduce vehicle congestion and speed up bus travel

7. Reform Governance and Funding

  • Measure and report the outcomes and equity benefits of each capital transportation investment
  • Create a new regional governance structure for Baltimore public transportation
  • Increase federal transportation investments to better maintain the existing system and complete critical capital investments

    cmcampbell@baltsun.com

    twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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