Baltimore transit needs much more than a tweak | COMMENTARY

Pam Brickell boards an MTA bus at the Mondawmin Transit Center. She is boarding the 91, one of the routes that the Maryland Transit Administration proposed cutting earlier this year only to reverse itself in late September after significant public backlash. The agency reduced commuter buses and MARC commuter rail service instead to offset revenue losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The most distressing grade in the latest report card from the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance isn’t the overall “D” given the Baltimore region for its commuter woes, it’s the “F” handed out for “job access by transit.” This is a failure that isn’t just about congestion or pot holes; it has life and death consequences for city dwellers, as well as the suburbanites and exurbanites who are inevitably harmed as these economic woes spread outward. If concentrated poverty is the cancer that is at the core of so many of Baltimore’s problems, this failure to successfully link people with employment might be described as withholding a lifesaving treatment.

Never mind that the organization writing this report card advocates for transit. The numbers are still the numbers. Only 9% of jobs in the Baltimore region can be reached within one hour, one-way by public transit, according to a University of Minnesota analysis. Five years ago, it was 11%, so say what you will about the Maryland Transit Administration’s “BaltimoreLink” upgrades, things have gotten worse. Low-skilled, low-paid workers don’t have access to a car. And, by the way, if they did, that’s no easy path to success, either, as commuting times by car aren’t so great, earning one of the report card’s “D” grades. Only about 18% of Baltimore area workers have a driving commute of 20 minutes or less. In booming Las Vegas last year, it was about two and a half times that number.


The COVID-19 pandemic has surely had an impact on commuting. Some Marylanders have benefited from fewer vehicles on the road, others have outright lost their jobs as certain segments of the economy have shut down, particularly in the service and hospitality industries. But this report card is an evaluation of pre-coronavirus problems that are destined to return. In the meantime, transit revenue is down precipitously. Unless Congress acts in pending COVID relief legislation, a lot of transit systems nationwide will face funding gaps of historic proportions that cannot easily be overcome. Service has already been cut. Next will come draconian reductions that can’t easily be restored even if the virus is brought under control.

Baltimoreans are well aware by now of Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision five years ago to abandon the Red Line light rail project that might have done much to improve transit commuter times. But they might not be as aware of the larger picture — of a chronic under-investment in Baltimore transit that goes back decades, or how little local say there is in transit decisions given how the MTA is a state agency. Mayor Brandon Scott can resolve to make transportation better and work with state and regional leaders as much as he wants, but he has little power to change these circumstances himself.


And before anyone quickly jumps on board the movement to create a regional transit authority to govern public transit in the Baltimore region (an understandable move given how Charm City is the only one of the 50 largest transit agencies nationwide run entirely by a state), here’s a question: How will that new agency be funded? Unless the Maryland Department of Transportation is willing to commit the same dollars from the state’s transportation trust fund that currently go toward the MTA to finance that successor organization, this idea is a non-starter. And given the depleted state of the trust fund with enormous projects like the D.C. region’s half-built 16-mile-long Purple Line light rail and the widening of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway (as ill-considered as that boondoggle may be) still in the pipeline, don’t count on support from Governor Hogan — or even some Democratic lawmakers who have a taste for road construction in their districts. On Wednesday, the problem officially gets significantly worse. That’s when the governor and fellow members of the Board of Public Works are expected to approve a $250 million settlement for the outgoing disgruntled Purple Line public-private partnership contractor, the first $100 million of which goes out the door before year’s end.

No, the best that Baltimore can hope for in the near-term are neighborhood by neighborhood, bus line by bus line investments. We’ll need the General Assembly to at least hold the MTA and the Hogan administration accountable for some minimum level of service to under-served city neighborhoods. Want to reduce gun violence? Invest in education, housing, drug treatment and, most of all, jobs. Provide people with hope and opportunities to succeed. Commutes that require two bus transfers and consume hours from your day? That’s unacceptable. And, one more thing: This isn’t just about low-paying jobs. Baltimore’s future prosperity is also tied to young well-educated people in high-paying industries like information technology who seek the convenience of a walkable, bikeable, affordable public transit-served neighborhood to live in. Baltimore can provide all that — if given the chance.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.