Baltimore gets schooled on transit

Acting Maryland Transit Administration CEO Kevin B. Quinn Jr. gives an update on his agency's preparedness for the June 18 launch of BaltimoreLink, Gov. Larry Hogan's $135 million plan to overhaul all the bus routes across the region for better reliability. (Colin Campbell/The Baltimore Sun)

Here's some required reading for the first day of school: "A Tale of Two Transit Systems." In the D.C. suburbs, it's the best of times, thanks to last week's groundbreaking of the $5.6 billion Purple Line, the 16.2-mile light rail linking Bethesda to New Carrollton. In Baltimore, it may not be the worst, but the contrast is still painfully obvious. Not only is Charm City bereft of its own light rail project, the east-west Red Line from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview, but the alternative provided, the less-than-one-fortieth as expensive BaltimoreLink, is likely to cause significant upset today. Why? Because the Maryland Transit Administration's reorganization of city bus lines is expected to catch hundreds of students by surprise on the first day of school.

That's not entirely the MTA's fault, of course. The agency has been trying to reach out to Baltimore City Public Schools students to warn them about changes to routes, and that's not an easy task, particularly in the city's more impoverished and isolated neighborhoods. But longtime transit advocates are bracing for chaos this week as an estimated 27,000 students who depend on the MTA for rides to and from school adjust to BaltimoreLink routes and schedules they didn't have to deal with last June. The problem is likely to sort itself out by week's end, but the contrast in transit investment in the Washington region versus the Baltimore region won't.

BaltimoreLink will pose a challenge to students on the first day of school.
BaltimoreLink will pose a challenge to students on the first day of school. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The Purple Line is something of a marvel, perhaps more "The Little Engine That Could" than a Charles Dickens novel. It required support from a Republican governor more interested in investing in roads than mass transit as well as approval from the Trump administration, which is even less excited about building new transit lines but somehow chose to fork over $900 million. And then there was the matter of a federal legal challenge that threatened to send the whole thing back to the drawing board. Yet the Purple Line survived, and the Aug. 28 groundbreaking in Landover Hills proved a happy, bipartisan affair with both Gov. Larry Hogan and Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat who is seeking to take Mr. Hogan's job next year, singing the project's praises and talking about "Team Maryland."

Chalk it up to trolley envy, but all the talk about how the Purple Line’s 21 stations are going to spur transit-oriented development in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties isn’t sitting well among those who were counting on the 14-mile, $2.9 billion Red Line to do the same for Baltimore — until Governor Hogan killed the project two years ago. And linking the fate of the two light rail lines seems entirely fair given that’s exactly what then-Gov. Martin O’Malley did to convince the General Assembly to pass new fees and a major increase in the gas tax in 2013. Vote for the controversial package, lawmakers in Prince George’s County and Baltimore were told, and the two transit lines can move forward. Now, all city legislators have is a $135 million BaltimoreLink plan that many people, including the MTA’s own drivers, hate.

Mr. Hogan isn’t going to restore the Red Line. He couldn’t if he wanted to, given other transportation spending commitments he’s made. But he could take steps to do more for Baltimore’s dysfunctional transit systems, particularly the manner in which its bus system serves city riders. Plan a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route on North Avenue, for example, with high-frequency cross-town bus service, or simply expand existing MTA service with an eye to getting people from the city’s poorest neighborhoods to the region’s job centers. Invest more in bus stops with new furnishings and off-vehicle fare-collection machines and maps, and then spend more to advertise MTA services to local residents. Even decent benches can make a difference. Baltimore’s Charm City Circulator’s success is partly due to the fact it offers riders a more pleasant experience.

The Hogan talks a good game about Baltimore, but it needs to deliver more. The city’s woes, so many of which stem from its concentrated poverty, aren’t of the governor’s creation, of course, but Baltimore needs help from Annapolis to reach its full potential. The cancellation of the Red Line was an economic body blow, but the rise of the Purple Line demonstrates that the administration will open its checkbook for transit when it deems the effort worthy. Surely the Baltimore region deserves transportation investment on par with what’s now happening in the south.

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