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Better transportation key to Baltimore's future

For many years, Baltimore's economy was fueled by a strong transportation system, with a port and rail lines that made Baltimore an economic engine for the nation. Its comprehensive streetcar system allowed people from virtually anywhere in the city to reach good jobs affordably and easily.

Today, unfortunately, our transportation system is failing to meet our regional economic needs. That finding is embedded in a new evaluation that measures how transportation affects people across the region: families, workers, job-seekers and employers.

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The 2015 Transportation Report Card from the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance gave our system a D rating, based on 12 measures — not quite failing, but still an unacceptable score. The evaluation should serve as a wake-up call to the region's elected officials and civic leaders.

Two key findings emerged from the report card. First, our transportation system fails to adequately link people to jobs, which are increasingly spread out across the region, not just downtown. Second, exceedingly long commutes do harm to our economy and quality of life.

The worst grade — an F — was in the "disconnected communities" category, which measures how many people have extra-long commutes. This indicator doesn't just capture the frustration of car-bound commuters; it also reflects the number of lower-income people who endure extremely long public transit commutes to reach jobs.

This is no small matter. A recent study by Harvard economists found that the single strongest factor affecting the odds of a child escaping poverty is not the test scores of his or her local schools or the crime in the community; it is the percent of workers in his or her neighborhood who have long commutes. And among the nation's 100 largest cities, the one where children face the worst odds of escaping poverty is Baltimore City.

Similarly, the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance in its own research has found a strong correlation between long commutes and signs of neighborhood distress including unemployment, poverty and low life expectancy. Neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray grew up, have the worst connections to jobs, a stark reminder that transportation is a key component of opportunity.

We also get an F on the disposable income indicator. While housing in the greater Baltimore region is, on average, less expensive than in the Washington region, that doesn't fully measure people's cost of living, especially transportation costs.

The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology created the widely referenced Housing + Transportation Affordability Index. Some might be surprised to learn that, using that formula, far more households in the Baltimore region, compared to the Washington area, exceed the accepted threshold for what constitutes affordable housing and transportation.

The region also received Ds when measuring people's access to jobs via both public transportation and driving; in short, neither mode is doing a good enough job. Addressing those linked challenges will require a broad solution.

Too many people view a dollar spent on public transportation as a dollar taken from drivers, but not only is that not true, it also misses the point that we have a transportation system with many components, all of which must work well.

Other regions have figured this out. The Salt Lake City region, for example, saw its number of jobs accessible in a 10- or 20-minute drive go up between 1990 and 2000.

How did that happen? One factor was the Salt Lake City region's heavy investment in public transportation over that time period. Since 1997, the year in which Maryland last expanded the Baltimore regional transit system, Utah opened three new light rail lines, an 88-mile commuter train, a streetcar, a rapid transit bus line and an expansion to the downtown intermodal hub. Driving conditions improved and the Salt Lake region's economy grew faster than the Baltimore region's economy.

In recent months, we have seen a number of transportation developments. Gov. Larry Hogan rejected the proposed Red Line, and his administration is now planning changes to Baltimore regional bus lines. And the Baltimore Metropolitan Council has formulated important transportation plans for the region.

The 2015 Transportation Report Card does not specifically evaluate these strategies or others. Rather it assesses whether our current policies, infrastructure and planned projects are achieving our goals. This evaluation approach should serve as a starting point for measuring our region's transportation system — and, we hope, a range of plans and strategies — for years to come.

Better transportation isn't a luxury; it's central to our future.

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Regions that invest in transportation — roads, mass transit, bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly roadways — will attract new residents and retain current residents, support healthy lifestyles and foster a cleaner environment.

All of those factors are crucial to growing our economy and improving quality of life for all of us. Better transportation equals a better Baltimore region. And it's time we invested in both.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. Thomas E. Wilcox is president of the Baltimore Community Foundation. Both are members of the board of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. They can be reached at twilcox@bcf.org.

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