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Override Hogan’s veto, pass the Maryland Transit Safety and Investment Act | GUEST COMMENTARY

Riders transfer from a bus to the light rail tracks at the Patapsco Light Rail Station in Halethorpe. The Maryland General Assembly passed Transit Safety and Investment Act earlier this year, but the governor vetoed the legislation.
Riders transfer from a bus to the light rail tracks at the Patapsco Light Rail Station in Halethorpe. The Maryland General Assembly passed Transit Safety and Investment Act earlier this year, but the governor vetoed the legislation. (Amy Davis)

The three of us come from different backgrounds — one is a small-business owner, one provides biotech training to under- and un-employed people, and one runs a program to help people overcome obstacles and land family-supporting jobs. But we come together to plead with our elected leaders to pass legislation to fix Maryland’s inadequate transit system.

Each of us has seen the toll that our broken transit system takes on workers and employers, on students and on people who are simply trying to get ahead. The stories about transit problems we hear regularly from the people we work with, train and support infuriate us.

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Cheri Cernak’s family business, CRC Restaurants, owns and operates Obrycki’s restaurant and two raw bars at BWI airport, and depends on employees to be on time. But many struggle with unreliable transit.

One Obrycki’s manager lives near North Avenue in Baltimore, about 25 minutes away by car. But because she relies on public transit to get to work — taking a bus to the light rail — a commute that would take 25 minutes by car routinely takes 75 minutes each way when things are working, but two hours when there are breakdowns or delays, something that happens far too often.

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A majority of CRC’s staff use public transportation to get to work, and most spend at least an hour commuting. Many experience long waits for the light rail because of “very irregular” service, as one worker describes it.

At the Biotechnical Institute of Baltimore (BTI), Executive Director Brandy Carter sees the same issue. BTI trains under- and unemployed people to become lab associates, many of whom go on to work in well-paid jobs in Maryland’s biotechnology life sciences sector. BTI students are highly motivated and overcome numerous barriers in their lives, such as homelessness, poverty or a lack of child care. Yet too often Maryland’s public transit system is the one barrier they can’t surmount.

Some BTI students have had to drop out because they can’t count on public transit to get to training. For some, that means a return to public assistance or part-time jobs instead of investing in building a career. One student works the night shift at Walmart in Pasadena, a 20-minute journey by car. After finishing his shift, he takes a two-hour bus ride to BTI to start creating a better future for himself. That’s already four hours a day in transit, and that’s when things are going well. Any delay or no-show makes his commute untenable.

The biotech industry in Baltimore faces a shortage of skilled lab associates, and BTI knows how to train the workers they need. Yet BTI graduates have trouble getting to these well-paying jobs on time because they need safe, reliable public transit to get there. Employers can’t afford to keep employees who routinely show up late — even when it’s due to transit delays and no-shows.

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Transit unreliability also affects the work of Turnaround Tuesday, where Terrell Williams is co-director. The organization provides training and coaching to help returning and unemployed citizens reenter the workforce. One is a formerly incarcerated 72-year-old who attends a trade school in West Baltimore. He lives in Waverly, does not have a car, and must take multiple buses.

He said that at times he’s walked the four miles between Mondawmin and Waverly because it was faster than the bus. As he put it: “Public transportation is an important part of survival. If you can’t get to work and earn money, you can become homeless.”

We were excited that the General Assembly passed the Transit Safety and Investment Act (TSIA) earlier this year. TSIA would provide the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) with the minimum annual funding it needs to undertake long-overdue repairs and would help maintain safety systems, bus shelters, buses, light rail, subway and MARC tracks and switches.

This is an urgent need, given MTA’s terrible reliability record. No other regional transit system of our size in the country has a worse track record for breakdowns. We see daily the problems that public transit creates for people just trying to get ahead.

Despite the need, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the measure, refusing to commit to the funding our transit system needs to keep up with maintenance.

To our legislators, we say: If you care about developing a 21st century workforce, if you care about righting the inequities our constituents and colleagues deal with on a daily basis, if you want a business-friendly Maryland, please vote to override the governor’s veto and pass the Maryland Transit Safety and Investment Act.

Cheri Cernak (cheri@crcrestaurants.com) is an owner of CRC Restaurants, BWI Airport. Brandy Carter (bcarter@btiworks.org) is the executive director of Biotechnical Institute of Maryland and Terrell Williams (Twillams@turnaroundtuesday.orgis co-director of Turnaround Tuesday.

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