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Baltimore-area buses break down more than in most other cities, partly because the MTA forgot to buy new ones

State-run buses in Baltimore break down about six times more frequently than buses in St. Louis or Denver. A state-run subway through the city fails five times more often those in Cleveland or D.C. And, Baltimore’s light rail system breaks down three times more than Pittsburgh’s or Salt Lake City’s.

Maryland Transit Administration vehicles fail or break down far more often than in most other comparable cities, according to the most recent Federal Transit Administration data.

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“On MTA trains and buses, riders and operators face more frequent breakdowns than on other systems around the U.S,” says Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Maryland Transit Caucus. “Maryland MTA is worst in the nation for major failures.”

Light Rail breakdowns

Lierman is circulating a slideshow highlighting the state’s high rate of public transit breakdowns as she pushes for increased funding for capital transit projects. She has submitted legislation, backed by the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee and area county executives, that would require a minimum funding level of $500 million per year for the Maryland Transit Administration’s capital budget over the next six years ― an increase of more than $100 million annually.

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The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Craig Zucker, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The funding would help address the MTA’s projected funding shortfall of more than $2 billion over the next decade.

In an interview, MTA CEO Kevin B. Quinn Jr. said that while MTA does have more breakdowns than the cities listed in Lierman’s chart, eight other systems in the country have higher failure rates.

Bus breakdowns

One reason why Maryland has fallen behind other cities, Quinn said, is that several years ago the agency missed a deadline to make its annual purchase of new buses to replace those that are falling apart. That was in fiscal year 2015, before Quinn took the job in 2017.

“From a procurement standpoint, in fiscal year 2015, the agency missed a year of a bus buy,” Quinn said. “A missed year is a missed opportunity to replace 1/12th of the fleet.”

Quinn said the agency is taking steps to make up for that mistake, including entering into a five-year, $211 million bus contract to replace aging vehicles.

“Recognizing what happened in the past, we awarded a 5-year bus contract, which guaranteed buses until 2024,” Quinn said. “That’s a really good solid foundation.”

Quinn said the agency also is funding a $160 million overhaul of its Light Rail train fleet and spending $400 million to replace the Metro SubwayLink railcars and signal system.

“Once these fleet overhauls are complete, [Maryland] will have one of the youngest rail fleet systems in the U.S.,” Quinn said.

Subway breakdowns

And, he said, the agency’s performance is improving. Bus service is now on time 76% of the time, up from 59% in 2016. Even with the breakdowns, subway service was 96% on time last year and light rail was 93% on time.

But Lierman said she and other transit advocates are pushing hard to make sure Maryland doesn’t underperform other cities ― and that residents can get to and from work on time. She said her goal isn’t to embarrass state officials but to get the state to give transit more emphasis.

“I hope this information provides a wake-up call to [the state transportation department] that it’s time to take care of our transit system so we can assure Marylanders that they can count on reliable and safe transit options," she said.

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