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Putting the brakes on Baltimore transit: Is there an exit plan? Shared sacrifice? | COMMENTARY

Pam Brickell says proposed reduction of MTA bus service will greatly affect her since she relies on mass transit. Brickell is at the Mondawmin Transit Center where she is boarding the 91, one of the routes that may be cut. The Maryland Transit Administration is proposing a reduction of 20% of its bus service in January due to a loss of revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. September 1, 2020.
Pam Brickell says proposed reduction of MTA bus service will greatly affect her since she relies on mass transit. Brickell is at the Mondawmin Transit Center where she is boarding the 91, one of the routes that may be cut. The Maryland Transit Administration is proposing a reduction of 20% of its bus service in January due to a loss of revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. September 1, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Given the uncertain state of Maryland’s transportation finances, this week’s announcement by the Maryland Transit Administration that the state agency proposes to substantially reduce transit service does not come as a complete surprise. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly worsened an already stretched-thin state Transportation Trust Fund and emergency federal relief funds are quickly running out. But the circumstances don’t make the prospect of a “20% overall service reduction” in local bus routes any less painful for Baltimore and its neighboring counties. Particularly to the degree they impact city neighborhoods where there are few alternative options for getting around. As the battlefield surgeons might say right before cutting off a limb, this one is going to hurt.

There are a number of problems inherent with this decision. Why is the MTA’s operating budget hit so much harder than the operating budgets of other agencies within the Maryland Department of Transportation? If the MTA has to take it on the chin and leave people literally standing on the curb with cutbacks that will inevitably hurt poor and minority transit-dependent neighborhoods worse, why aren’t equally draconian reductions being imposed on road repair and expansion, airport and port operations, and — here’s the especially important one — to Maryland’s share of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority funding? Just weeks ago, WMATA proudly announced that Washington area rail and bus service has been fully restored to pre-COVID-19 levels. How very nice for Washingtonians. Meanwhile, MDOT’s explanation of cuts to the Maryland Aviation Administration’s operating budget notes reductions in landscaping. One imagines Baltimore-Washington International will survive that indignity.

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Gov. Larry Hogan has surely grown accustomed by now to complaints about the serious damage he did to Baltimore’s economic well-being with his decision to cut the Red Line, the 14-mile east-west light rail system that was well along in development when he first took office. The decision cost Maryland hundreds of millions in promised federal aid but it also cost the city thousands of much-needed jobs, not only in construction of a $2.9 billion project but by the eventual better connecting of people to employment. The MTA’s reorganization of routes and minor investments since then have so far accomplished little of note beyond helping further reduce system ridership.

Make no mistake, we do not relish further cuts to transit and to transportation infrastructure generally, whether in the D.C. suburbs or in rural counties. We have, for example, already fretted about the possibility that the renovation of the Howard Street Tunnel, which is critical to Port of Baltimore shipping, could be delayed or deferred by budget cuts (and it won’t be, according to the state’s latest six-year capital budget). And we have chided Governor Hogan for not taking actions as his predecessors did to “refuel” the trust fund, preferably with an update of the state’s tax on gasoline and diesel. But fixing the potential transportation funding deficit on the backs of those least able to afford it is not just ruinous public policy, it’s a formula for social upheaval. As the Freddie Gray unrest reminded us, it’s not just police brutality but systemic racism and lack of opportunity that can enrage a community to forceful protest. Hopelessness has a way of doing that. Where is the analysis of the civil rights implication of MTA’s proposed cuts to city service? Or the environmental consequences of greater dependency on cars?

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The MTA’s assurances that their proposed reductions seek to preserve bus connections with job centers and target suburban routes (where presumably people have more transportation options) are certainly welcome as is the agency’s relative transparency in announcing them months in advance of their Jan. 3rd effective date, but cutbacks are still cutbacks. What is the agency’s plan to restore service once the trust fund’s revenue outlook improves? There is no mention of this in MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn’s public statement, nor has anyone else offered such assurances. Here’s our guess: A governor who prefers to direct transportation resources to the D.C. area and invest more in roads than transit isn’t going to restore these cuts. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.

There is a certain grim irony that one of the proposed cuts is to discontinue express bus service from Baltimore to Annapolis. So much for transit-dependent city protesters showing up at the State House next year. We would instead encourage Baltimore area residents to strongly express their opinions at the MTA’s planned ten “virtual” hearings between Oct. 5 and 16, or to simply offer comment between now and Nov. 15. Baltimore’s future should not be dismissed quietly or easily. This is a stab in the heart of city transit. Where is the parity with D.C.? Where is the social justice? Just because ridership has been temporarily diminished by the pandemic does not mean Baltimore should be permanently diminished by the Hogan administration.

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