What can be done about Baltimore’s unreliable transit? | COMMENTARY

An MTA bus rides along Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown. June 24, 2022. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun).

In recent months, the resurrection of the Red Line, Baltimore’s $2.9 billion east-west light rail system that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan derailed in his first term in office, became something of a cause célèbre for Democrats seeking the primary nomination to become Maryland’s next governor. The winning candidate, Wes Moore, pitched it as part of a broader attempt to serve neglected communities. Even the Hogan administration has suggested that the light rail be considered again. But whatever the pros and cons of building a rail line from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus at some future date, the Baltimore region has a more pressing need — adequate service on existing state-run transit systems, which have become woefully unreliable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was the point made in a recent letter to Governor Hogan from the Transform Maryland Transportation Coalition, a group of 30 organizations advocating for improved transit service. The group has been lobbying for a Baltimore regional transit authority to assume much of the responsibility for the area’s public transportation from the Maryland Transit Administration, a state agency. Indeed, authorizing such a move is expected to be on the Nov. 8 ballot in Baltimore, the product of a petition drive that appears to have garnered the requisite 10,000 signatures. As these advocates point out in their letter, MTA services are today what might generously be described as lackluster.


How bad are they? According to the coalition, light rail passengers are being stranded for an hour or more as trains are delayed or don’t show up at all — often with no explanation or warning. The subway system has produced similar experiences. Complaints made to the MTA Twitter feed go unnoticed in evenings or weekends. Why? Because the agency doesn’t monitor the social media platform beyond weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The MTA bus service is problematic, too, but advocates say they can’t measure it precisely because the agency’s own record keeping is deeply flawed as on-time measures, for example, fail to factor in buses that don’t show up at all.

And that’s not all. Paratransit riders face delays, and on various systems, passenger announcements often don’t give explanations of why service disruptions are taking place or how the schedules will be revised. Light rail trains will sometimes abruptly stop mid-route without any reason cause which then ends up doubling travel times, advocates say. In short, it’s a mess. And the critics say that any suggestion that these irregularities are solely the fault of the COVID-19 pandemic don’t hold much water, given that other urban transit systems — in Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — are facing the same challenges but performing much better. One reason for their success may be that other such systems are taking much bolder actions to preserve service, including offering signing bonuses for new bus drivers and attractive short-term employment offers to lure back recently-retired rail operators. There is no similar sense of urgency to correct the shortcomings at the MTA.


We have heard these complaints from riders before. As well as a concern that the loss of bus drivers and rail operators (about 200 altogether) has made the MTA’s work much, much harder even as the agency cut back service during the pandemic. But what we are not hearing is a creative plan to upgrade service and a desire to make this a priority for state government. With city schools scheduled to reopen for fall classes in less than a month and thousands of students dependent on MTA transit options, time is of the essence. It’s no stretch to remind Governor Hogan and Maryland Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr. that the city’s economic future depends on reliable, affordable, safe and convenient public transportation. It’s a problem that can’t wait for the next governor to take office in 2023, frankly.

We get the politics, of course. Mr. Hogan is a suburban road and highway person. And when it came to make a major investment in transit, his preference was to direct it to the Purple Line, the $3.4 billion, 16-mile Bethesda-to-New Carrollton light rail line that serves voter-rich Montgomery and Prince George’s counties (and is supposed to be back under construction this month after a nearly 2-year hiatus, cost overruns and a dispute with its former contractor). But, please sir, could the Baltimore area have some more? Bethesda’s average household income falls north of $172,000, the U.S. Census reports, while Baltimore’s falls south of $53,000. It shouldn’t require a map to see how a lack of reliable transit might be inconvenient for the former but devastating for the latter.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.