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To fix Baltimore’s transit system, local funding, oversight needed | COMMENTARY

As the nation’s public health crisis rages on, the Baltimore region’s buses remain busy transporting essential workers and residents who depend on it each day. Transit is literally a lifeline for those who need it to get to work, health care, grocery stores or day care centers. But the system is plagued by delays, breakdowns, and limited service to many parts of the region. The city’s elected, business, civic and faith leaders understand this and have called for more and better public transit service for years.

The problem is, unlike almost every other transit system in the country, local Baltimore area officials do not have much of a say in how the transit network is planned, built, operated or funded.

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Greater Baltimore’s transit is administered from Annapolis by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), which, as a state agency, is directly controlled by the governor. Other large state-run transit systems — such as Boston’s — are overseen by governing boards that include local representatives. More commonly, transit services are provided by local or regional agencies, like they are in Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Diego and dozens of other places.

Why does it matter that Central Maryland’s local governments have no formal role in planning or operating the region’s transit system? For one thing, the disconnect between regional transit needs and total state authority makes it difficult to conduct and implement long term plans that are responsive to changing local and regional needs. When transit decision-making is concentrated wholly in the hands of a governor, local priorities can be ignored.

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This dynamic was evident in 2015, when the Hogan administration canceled the long-planned Red Line light rail project. In fact, since the Baltimore region last saw a new rapid transit line investment, the rest of the nation built over 1,500 miles worth. What’s more, the rail lines that do exist in the region breakdown more often than any others in the country. Many job centers in the region are also underserved by transit. For example, despite significant growth in airport traffic, there is no light rail service to BWI on Sunday mornings before 10:30, making it difficult for workers to access jobs at the airport and nearby hotels.

To be sure, there are clear benefits to state involvement in transit. Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund provides a stable, flexible funding source for a variety of transportation needs, including transit. The MTA is the only agency of its kind that does not receive any funding from local sources.

However, new research from the Eno Center for Transportation shows that for Baltimore to develop a high-performing transit system, local participation in both oversight and funding is needed.

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One option for rebalancing transit governance to incorporate both state and local perspectives is the creation of a regional Greater Baltimore Transit Authority, with a board of directors composed of both local and state representatives and funding derived from local and state sources. This is the structure most commonly used by peer regions across the country.

Another option is to create an MTA governing board to provide consistency across gubernatorial administrations (since just 2004 the MTA has had six different administrators). Or the state could consider creating transit advisory boards, one focusing on statewide services (MARC, commuter bus), and the other on transit within the Baltimore region. When these kinds of boards work well, the agency and the public gain a powerful, independent advocate.

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Any one of these reforms would increase local oversight and accountability in decision-making and increase the transit system’s responsiveness to local priorities and fidelity to long-term plans.

Institutional change is not easy, but sometimes it is necessary. The region needs to do better for transit riders, workers and employers. Now is the time to take bold action to address these long-standing issues that hold Baltimore back. Is the region up to the challenge of finally working together to deliver a world-class transit system or will it accept the status quo — further decline of the system and, as a result, Central Maryland’s economic competitiveness?

We can do better — Baltimore’s inclusive recovery from the pandemic and future prosperity depends on it.

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Robert Puentes (rpuentes@enotrans.org) is president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation. Brian O’Malley (bomalley@cmtalliance.org) is president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. And Joe McAndrew (jmcandrew@greaterwashingtonpartnership.com) is managing director of transportation for the Greater Washington Partnership.

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