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What has MTA wrought?

Riders work through issues on the first day of the BaltimoreLink bus route overhaul. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)

Our view: Angry riders say BaltimoreLink has been a disaster while MTA says it’s been great. Missing from the debate? Sufficient evidence to judge which side is correct

One can scarcely imagine a more yawning chasm than the difference between the Maryland Transit Administration's public assessments of BaltimoreLink, the state agency's $135 million program to "fix" city transit, and the experience of actual bus riders frustrated by the program's first week. To the MTA, things are going swimmingly. To the 200 or so angry people who gathered Monday night in the War Memorial Building for a town hall sponsored by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, it's been an unmitigated disaster. Who is correct? The MTA? The unhappy customers? Both? Neither?

Gov. Larry Hogan announces the BaltimoreLink bus reorganization in 2015.
Gov. Larry Hogan announces the BaltimoreLink bus reorganization in 2015. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

It has been clear from the day Gov. Larry Hogan first unveiled BaltimoreLink in the fall of 2015 that the effort (which is mostly a reorganization of city bus routes) was going to produce winners and losers. If you live and work or otherwise travel along one of the new high-frequency color-coded routes, you're probably pretty happy right now. If you don't — and if, in fact, your stops are now farther from your destinations or you now must transfer buses multiple times or wait much longer for a ride — you are probably none too pleased. To suggest these shortchanged riders are merely unhappy badly understates the strong emotions on display at the union forum — but then that's what happens when your job, your ability to get to your doctor and perhaps even your safety is put in serious jeopardy and you have no alternative available to you.

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Following complaints from some riders about long wait times in the first week of the BaltimoreLink bus route overhaul, the Maryland Transit Administration said Monday it would increase early morning service on three of its high-frequency east-west CityLink routes.

Witness after witness shared their horror stories of BaltimoreLink, of standing on street corners for an hour or more, of having to tote groceries blocks instead of boarding a bus in front of the store, of having to wake hours earlier to make it to cross-town jobs, of potentially losing their jobs because they simply can't make the trip in a reasonable time frame, and, perhaps most alarmingly, of having to linger on some of Baltimore's least safe streets at a time when violence has escalated to alarming levels. Perhaps to the ATU's regret, MTA bus operators were not spared criticism either, with riders recalling rude bus drivers shockingly unfamiliar with the new routes and uninterested in their predicaments. To the credit of Kevin B. Quinn, the MTA's acting administrator, he sat on stage and bravely listened to it all, promising to use the rider input to "tweak" the program. He brought along a staff of 20 to write down specific concerns.

Monday marked the first weekday test of Gov. Larry Hogan's $135 million BaltimoreLink overhaul of the Maryland Transit Administration's bus routes across the Baltimore region.

Are "tweaks" enough? The consensus of Monday night's audiences was obvious: They'd like to see the whole thing reversed and the old, familiar MTA routes restored. All that was missing, one witness noted to cheers, was a few more buses and better customer service.

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But it's also fair to question whether the angry group that showed up Monday night represents a mainstream view. One presumes people happy with the changes were not inclined to trek downtown to express their thoughts in a public forum. Some reorganization of bus routes was overdue, and some reduction in stops to speed bus travel was needed as well. It's simply unreasonable to assume a city that has undergone as much change as Baltimore has over the years should have transit routes and schedules set in concrete.

City is getting shortchanged for MTA's BaltimoreLink

If the MTA has made a mistake, it's this: They oversold BaltimoreLink from the beginning. This is not the "transformative" project Governor Hogan promised and surely no adequate replacement for the $3 billion investment that was the Red Line, the east-west light rail connector Mr. Hogan canceled. Adding bus lanes on select streets and signal preemption to speed transit are welcome changes. But transformative? The MTA never had a chance of meeting that standard, not on 4.5 percent of the Red Line's budget. Small wonder some people are angry — and feel they've been sold a bill of goods.

It's too early to judge the success or failure of BaltimoreLink. But if the MTA and Governor Hogan are smart, they'll provide the public a clearer accounting of what's going on. How is the on-time performance? What are the ridership numbers? What are customer satisfaction surveys reporting? What are the bus drivers reporting? It's time the state put out less spin — like the June 26 happy-talk MTA press release headlined, "Free Rides Continue as Dedicated Bus Lanes, New Routes Proving a Time Saver for Riders" — and more hard evidence.

Acting MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn
Acting MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn

Mr. Quinn has promised as much. In an interview Tuesday, he said the MTA plans to provide not just anecdotal evidence from staff but hard data analysis to measure such things as on-time performance and reliability.

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Already, he said, the MTA's call center is experiencing a significant decrease in calls (primarily from people who need directions) from a high of 17,000 a day one week ago, a sign Baltimoreans are at least adjusting. That's a start.

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