Next summer, the District of Columbia will begin offering free bus rides to anyone traveling within the city limits, making D.C. the biggest U.S. city yet to waive or significantly reduce fares to increase transit use and help low-income commuters get to jobs. The waiver, approved on Dec. 6, will not be cheap. It’s expected to cost the city an extra $43 million at a time when the region’s transit system has already been struggling financially. But the logic of the decision remains sound: Businesses are having trouble finding workers. Many residents are having difficulty making ends meet. Buses can serve all communities. And it can help boost system ridership, as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and other transit operators across the country are still not attracting the numbers they had before the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s a lesson in this for Baltimore — if Wes Moore is willing to give it a try. As a candidate for governor, Moore promised to “leave no one behind” and, more specifically, to revive the Red Line, the $2.9 billion east-west light rail project that Gov. Larry Hogan derailed in his first term in office. As we’ve noted before, putting the Red Line back on track is no simple matter. It means essentially starting from scratch with political, financial and engineering challenges. The biggest? Securing federal and state financing for a project that may now cost $4 billion or more and take years to complete. Yet there is an alternative that could get on track much faster, much cheaper and produce much of the economic benefits of the Red Line — if local residents, business owners and elected leaders are willing to go “all in” and support it.
Here’s the idea: Start the ball rolling on the light rail project for the long-term but in the short term, as in immediately, launch a free, high-speed bus line covering essentially the same 14-mile route from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview. And add an extension to Trademark Atlantic, the former Bethlehem Steel site at Sparrows Point that is now being turned into a major jobs center producing, among other things, the turbines for offshore wind farms. This would require the Maryland Transit Administration to acquire enough high-quality electric vehicles — and operators — to produce reliable service. That’s an outcome, unfortunately, that the MTA has struggled to produce in recent years with an abysmal on-time record and high breakdown rate. One alternative would be to enlist private companies to provide the service.
Obviously, this would be a significant new expense for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. But in the short-term, the federal government may provide a temporary solution. Maryland can “flex” the money it receives each year in highway construction funding from Washington and redirect it toward transit. Still not sure about the viability of a free bus service? Simply make this a pilot project and see how it goes the first year or two and whether it produces the intended results. That’s one of the big benefits of bus systems — they can be more flexible than fixed rail.
But just buying buses and recruiting operators isn’t nearly enough. We would also expect Baltimore and the MTA to produce bus-only lanes and give these attractive, high-capacity and high-speed buses signal priority, meaning cross traffic would be held up to convenience them. Motorists won’t like losing a lane (the furor over bike lanes on Central Avenue of recent weeks has been noteworthy in this regard). Even some Baltimore residents who live on impacted streets may resist. Yet if such a bus line or, as its more formally called, a “Bus Rapid Transit” system is successful, the benefits will be obvious. At the heart of many of Baltimore’s worst problems —from gun violence to poverty to poor health and housing —is a failure to link people to decent-paying jobs. Surely, it would be money well spent.
Perhaps the most important appeal of this proposal is that it can be done quickly. A governor who has promised to lift up Baltimore can provide evidence that he’s a man of his word. And it’s not as if free bus service is much of a risk. The Charm City Circulator, also a free service, has been a great help to the central business district. More recently, the Towson Loop has gotten high marks in that community. But those are limited, and they serve affluent neighborhoods. A Red Line BRT could be a game changer (and a big help in lowering greenhouse gas emissions). At least it’s worth a try.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.