Baltimore transit: Is local control the answer?

Earlier this week, a Washington, D.C., based organization of business leaders issued a report that was, among other things, critical of the Baltimore region’s approach to transportation. Their point was well taken — if a bit obvious to those who live in close vicinity of Charm City. By most any standard, Baltimore’s transportation infrastructure, particularly its public transit systems, are haphazard and poorly connected, a product of state ownership of transit systems, historic racial and socioeconomic segregation, and a glaring lack of regional consensus and adequate public investment.

What the Capital Region Blueprint for Regional Mobility advises for corrective action, however, is what elected leaders from Towson to Annapolis, and Westminster to Ellicott City and Bel Air ought to read carefully. The Greater Washington Partnership calls for a more regional approach to transportation that appreciates how Maryland exists within a Baltimore-to-Richmond megalopolis. That can begin by asserting local control over transit decisions and taking them out of the hands of the Maryland Transit Administration and whomever happens to be governor.

That’s a tall order, of course, but the Greater Washington Partnership might have some clout. Their board reads like a Maryland-Virginia-D.C. edition of “Who’s Who of Big-time CEOs” from Under Armour’s Kevin Plank and Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels in the Baltimore area to Wes Bush of Northrop Grumman and Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics, in D.C. Collectively, these men and women oversee hundreds of thousands of jobs and, with the recent regional self-appraisal precipitated by the Amazon HQ2 search and its choice to move half the project to northern Virginia, they see a need for interconnection now more than ever.

Still, Baltimore’s transportation history is checkered to say the least. As mighty a blow as the 2015 cancellation of the planned $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project was to the city’s economic aspirations, most of the voters living in the surrounding counties voted to elect the man who killed it, Gov. Larry Hogan, to a second term. Why is that? Part of the answer is that the Red Line was viewed mostly as a city project, not theirs. But that’s not how transportation or regional economies work. Unless county leaders (and their constituents) recognize they have a big stake in what happens beyond their immediate neighborhoods or geographic borders, it’s easy for any governor to kill any single transportation project.

That’s one reason why the future of the MTA — or how Maryland decides which transportation projects to fund — is a conversation to have at a later time. Instead, the focus needs to be on how to correct the region’s most glaring transportation logjams as soon as possible. Renovating the 145-year-old Baltimore & Potomac tunnel so it doesn’t hold up the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s most prosperous route, and redeveloping Baltimore’s Penn Station or fixing Baltimore’s Metro “SubwayLink” system are clear needs. But here’s one that might be less obvious to Baltimoreans but could prove among the most do-able mentioned in the CEO-backed study: Connect Maryland’s commuter rail system to Virginia’s.

Surely, making it possible for someone to hop on a train in Northern Virginia and hop off in Baltimore should have been made a priority before now, but, amazingly, it was not. Maryland’s MARC trains go no further south than Washington’s Union Station. Same with Virginia’s VRE going north. In theory, one could transfer trains, but — again, incredibly — their schedules don’t even align. Fixing the situation can start with a common fare card and ticket reservation system but probably requires a major investment so that actual VRE and MARC cars can be transferred back and forth at Union Station. Can local governments muster that level of regional cooperation? It’s a good place to start.

Still, looking at transportation in such a broad and integrated manner is simply not standard procedure — not within the state of Maryland, let alone along the Baltimore-Richmond corridor. State delegates, senators, county executives, city council members and on and on will have to be convinced that this is necessary. Unless business leaders who have knowledge of the problem speak out, there’s little incentive for politicians to change their behavior. Even William Donald Schaefer, at the height of his powers as governor, couldn’t convince his beloved city to time the traffic lights on Howard Street to facilitate light rail traffic. Baltimore’s stake in this issue is bigger than most. If the city’s transportation shortcomings aren’t addressed, there’s little chance it can keep pace with its more prosperous neighbors to the south.

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