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Baltimore needs to upgrade transit beyond fresh paint and bus shelters | COMMENTARY

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg celebrates a $22 million grant for Baltimore’s East-West Priority Corridor project with city and state officials, including from left, Del. Brooke Lierman, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Steve Sharkey, director of Baltimore DOT, and Mayor Brandon Scott, during a Nov. 23 press conference at Library Square on E. Fayette Street In Highlandtown. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun).
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg celebrates a $22 million grant for Baltimore’s East-West Priority Corridor project with city and state officials, including from left, Del. Brooke Lierman, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Steve Sharkey, director of Baltimore DOT, and Mayor Brandon Scott, during a Nov. 23 press conference at Library Square on E. Fayette Street In Highlandtown. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun). (Amy Davis)

For those who might have overlooked last week’s dog-and-pony show by U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Mayor Brandon Scott, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and sizeable number of fellow elected officials in East Baltimore’s Library Square, the good news is: You didn’t miss much. Remember when Baltimore was due a $2.9 billion Red Line to properly link the east and west sides with light rail, including $800 million from the federal government? Well, the latest plan costs 1/58th as much as that investment, which was deep-sixed by Gov. Larry Hogan six years ago, and it mostly involves paint. Congratulations, Baltimore, you are getting more bus lanes. Feel the excitement.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with dedicated bus lanes when used appropriately. Same with bike lanes. The $50 million plan (with its $22 million federal contribution) seeks to improve a 20-mile corridor from Baltimore County’s Fox Ridge to the east to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to the west. It would accomplish this with about 10 miles of bus lanes, about 100 bus shelters or benches, several miles of signal priority (meaning buses would cause traffic signals to favor their direction) and improved signage. We’re certainly willing to believe this will prove marginally helpful — if only because it will demonstrate to the public that bus riders deserve better treatment than to be left standing in the rain or stuck in traffic.

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And all the politicians who gathered on Nov. 23 to celebrate this milestone event had sufficient reason to be there, beginning with Secretary Buttigieg, who is touting President Joe Biden’s infrastructure spending far and wide (Baltimore is, of course, pretty close to home base). Mayor Scott surely welcomes any federal investment, and Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater was probably just excited not to be canceling a city project. The problem is they laid it on a bit thick, with the mayor calling the project a “game changer.” We would be more inclined to accept that, had the transit bus been invented in 2021 instead of 1830 by Sir Goldworthy Gurney of Great Britain (thank you, Encyclopedia Britannica).

Here’s what the $50 million is really buying — a slightly better bus system. As Baltimore commuters may know, the Maryland Transit Administration has already invested in bus lanes downtown and along North Avenue, beginning in 2017, under the BaltimoreLink initiative. A subsequent 2019 study of their impact badly overstates their utility, touting, for example, a 31.7% decrease in travel time on a stretch of Hillen Street and Guilford Avenue that amounts to all of seven blocks or so. How game changing can that be for a commuter knowing there’s a brief section of his or her travels that is potentially minutes swifter than before?

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And that assessment also fails to consider the real-life experience of drivers ignoring bus lane markings and slowing things down. Frequently, commuters on four-lane roads like Edmondson Avenue don’t venture into the slower curb lane anyway, so what’s the big deal? We would find the whole thing laughable, except that, as was mentioned numerous times during last week’s press conference, a lot of people living along the east-west route in places like Harlem Park and Edmondson Village rely on public transit. They deserve better services, but they also deserve a reality-based understanding of just how under-invested we have become in this area. As Mr. Buttigieg noted, the $1 billion his department had to distribute nationally, under the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE), drew about $10 billion in applications.

Of course, nobody mentioned the Red Line. Perhaps that was just an effort to be polite to Secretary Slater and others from the Hogan administration, but we still hold out hope that Maryland’s next governor will be more focused on the Baltimore area’s transit needs instead of merely shoveling billions of transit and highway expansion money toward the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Connecting people with jobs and better educational opportunities would truly be a game changer for a city suffering from a lack of both. And no elected official who is serious about reducing Baltimore’s homicide numbers can afford to ignore its underwhelming public transit system where ridership remains about one-third below pre-pandemic levels.

Maybe this is the start of something much bigger. It could begin with a much larger investment in Maryland transit required under the Transit Safety and Investment Act (SB199/HB114) approved by state legislators but vetoed earlier this year by Governor Hogan. Override that veto when the Maryland General Assembly reconvenes next week and Baltimore could gain $322.9 million in MTA and MARC projects between now and 2029. One can only hope.

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

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