Last week Gov. Larry Hogan introduced changes to Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) service that slashes the operating budget of the agency by $43 million to combat fiscal shortfalls due to the pandemic. Beginning in January, 25 bus routes will be eliminated, and another 11 routes will offer reduced weekday service that will increase the time between buses by 15 to 30 minutes.
Governor Hogan was rightfully commended early on for his swift actions pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. He positioned himself as a moderate Republican whose response was in stark contrast to that of President Donald Trump. The governor let science and facts drive his decision making and was quick to enact a stay-at-home order and statewide mask mandate.
Now as Maryland enters into stage three of the recovery plan, Governor Hogan has defied scientific and economic facts and divested from an already strained transit system. He said he hopes “to make Maryland’s health and economic recovery a model for a nation.”
To achieve his statewide goal, Governor Hogan must invest in Baltimore, the state’s largest city. Baltimore is home to a major port, several anchoring businesses and institutions, and a thriving health care industry that supports the region. But the city has also faced many challenges since the pandemic. It ranked second among Maryland counties in the number of COVID-19 cases. Economically, Baltimore City has been slow to recover; unemployment rates are now the highest of any county in the state at nearly double pre-pandemic rates.
To achieve the health and economic gains desired, Mr. Hogan must invest in public transportation. As evidenced by past decisions — such as cancellation of the Red Line, a history of inadequate maintenance and repair funds that have resulted in alarmingly high breakdown rates of transit vehicles and a flawed project prioritization scoring system that devalues transit — Governor Hogan fails to recognize the vital role that public transportation plays in an economic recovery.
Transportation is a critical determinant of public health and economic advancement through access to health care, social support services, jobs and education. Nationwide, essential workers accounted for 36% of total transit commuters. Public transportation is even more vital in Baltimore. During the peak of the pandemic, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or WMATA, experienced ridership declines upward of 90% whereas MTA ridership declined by about 64% at the system level and 51% for the core bus mode.
Preliminary findings from the Federal Highway Administration study on the impact of COVID-19 shows that compared to agencies across the U.S., MTA ridership has been more resilient to the pandemic due to a large essential workforce. However, as we praise our essential workers for grit and heroism, we are making it harder for them to get to work.
Most of the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) agencies' operating cuts are temporary cost-containment strategies such as hiring freezes, reduced landscaping costs, and telework savings. The reduction in operating costs for MTA is based on service reductions due to decreased ridership.
What’s most disconcerting about the recent announcement is that the messaging, which states the service reduction is in response to a temporary disruption, shrouds the fact that these are permanent cuts. The January service change announcement makes no mention of how service levels may be returned post-pandemic. If Maryland continues the positive response to COVID-19, people will return to work and schools will reopen while service remains reduced.
Though the service announcement states that routes will be realigned to ensure that transfer rates remain the same, the decreased frequency will result in longer wait times and potential overcrowding. The city’s 28,000 middle and high school students who rely on MTA to get to school already endure long travel times and crowded buses. Cuts in the core bus service, Mobility disability service, commuter services and locally-operated transit systems will hurt other counties as well. During a pandemic when social distancing is vital, this is counterproductive to the health and economic well-being of our state.
If Governor Hogan wants to offer the shining example of a COVID-19 response that takes into account the long-term health and economic viability of the state, then he needs to recognize the critical role that public transit plays. In a city where one-third of households do not own a car, economic recovery requires that transit provides access to jobs, schools and essential services.
At the 2017 launch of BaltimoreLink, Governor Hogan stated that BaltimoreLink signified the state’s long-term commitment to the future of Baltimore. Three years later when the stakes of economic recovery have never been higher, he is reneging on his promise. Governor Hogan’s reliance on science and facts has served Marylanders well up until this point. Don’t abandon them now.
Celeste Chavis (email@example.com) is an associate professor at the Urban Mobility & Equity Center at Morgan State University and a board member of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.