Under fire from Baltimore-area bus riders, business leaders, politicians, parents and advocates, the Hogan administration on Wednesday canceled its proposal to slash MTA bus service in the Baltimore region next year in response to falling revenues due to the coronavirus.
Instead, the agency’s commuter buses and MARC trains, which have seen deeper and more sustained drops in ridership this year, will offer reduced service beginning in November. Service will be adjusted “as needed to meet demand,” MTA chief Kevin Quinn said.
“The message has been clear: Core bus service in the Baltimore region is a lifeline for many,” Quinn said. “We heard the public’s perspective loud and clear, and we took a really hard look at what adjustments we could make.”
With about one in three Baltimoreans lacking access to a vehicle, and nearly 40% of bus riders working essential jobs, core bus ridership has remained higher than on the MARC train and commuter buses, suburban-to-city routes that serve more riders who can drive or work from home.
Bus ridership was down only 51% in the fourth week of September, compared to 89% for MARC and 87% for commuter buses, according to the MTA.
Beginning Nov. 2, MARC trains will run on an enhanced "R" holiday schedule, a 43% decrease in service, while the commuter buses will operate on an "S" snow day schedule, a 45% reduction in service, Quinn said. All Express Bus routes and LocalLinks 38 and 92 will remain suspended.
The MTA Mobility paratransit service, which would have been scaled back in 2022, will be unchanged.
The MTA will preserve its scheduled MARC train slots on the tracks owned by CSX and Amtrak and its contracts with commuter bus providers, Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said.
“This plan allows us to respond nimbly as Maryland’s economy recovers and more choice riders cease teleworking or return to transit,” Slater said.
The now-canceled proposal to permanently eliminate 25 MTA bus lines and reduce service on a dozen others due to plunging state revenues had been harshly criticized as inequitable even before next week’s planned public hearings, which the MTA has called off.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Council President Brandon Scott, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball issued a joint statement celebrating the cancellation of the proposed service cuts.
“We’re pleased that the state has reversed their decision to balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable residents," they said. “While we understand the significant budget challenges caused by the pandemic, the proposed cuts would have only caused further harm to our residents who are already bearing the brunt of this crisis.
"Moving forward, we must continue to fight for more state funding to reverse generations of underinvestment in transportation across our entire region.”
Even though the MTA is rolling back its service cuts, the state’s funding cuts to the agency remain. Those cuts have drawn the ire of Baltimore boosters and transit advocates, who worry about riders like Patricia Reed-El, who relies on the bus to get to her job at Sinai Hospital.
The 60-year-old has worked as a cafe associate for 19 years, and she was late again when she stepped off the bus Monday. Her bus line wasn’t targeted to be cut, but her 45-minute commute has taken longer due to inconsistent bus service during the pandemic.
“Sometimes they’re late,” Reed-El said of the buses. “Sometimes some of them don’t show up."
Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, accused the Hogan administration of playing a “shell game” with some of the federal CARES Act transit relief money by “clawing back state dollars” that previously had been allocated for the MTA.
After Congress allocated $145 million of the coronavirus relief funding to support transit operations during the 2021 fiscal year, the governor removed $188 million in state money from the MTA operating budget, according to the alliance’s analysis.
“What was supposed to be extra money to support a critical service for essential workers was turned into a deficit,” O’Malley said.
The move represented a 21% cut in state funding to the MTA’s operating budget, far more than the 4% to 8% budget cuts to the State Highway Administration, Motor Vehicle Administration and other state-run transportation agencies, O’Malley said.
“We’re gratified that they’ve canceled the cuts to the core bus. That’s the most essential right now, during the pandemic,” he said. "But we’re concerned that the inequitable budget cuts the governor is making to the MTA remain.”
Quinn emphasized that the CARES Act money was used for transit as intended, but he did not dispute O’Malley’s analysis, which he said MTA officials are still studying. Maryland lawmakers have raised similar concerns about uneven state funding cuts, he said.
Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, is one of them.
Lierman, the Transit Caucus co-chair, put forward a bill that did not pass in the Senate during the last General Assembly session to mandate state funding levels for the MTA, based on the agency’s capital and operational needs. She and state Sen. Cory McCray plan to try again next session.
“We need to see additional investment,” Lierman said. “Nobody who has to rely on MTA service thinks that the status quo is good enough.”
Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a pro-business group, had called the proposed cuts to bus service “unconscionable,” given that Maryland’s contributions to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s operating and capital budgets were fully funded.
The state’s proposal reflected “an egregious pattern of disinvestment in underserved communities in the Baltimore region where Black and Brown residents are reliant on already insufficient transit service,” he said.
“The proposed cuts would have significantly harmed transit-dependent riders, essential workers and communities that have already been negatively impacted by disinvestment,” Fry said.
Joe Kane, the eldest child in his family, remembers being responsible for dropping off his younger brother with his grandmother on his way to school. Missing his usual bus from Waverly often meant taking another that left him with more than a mile walk to the old Northern High School.
"That was 10, 15 years ago,” he said. “Today, there are similar stories. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Kane, who now lives in Ednor Gardens and has four children of his own, is the chair of the Parent and Community Advisory Board for Baltimore City Public Schools.
The group had expressed deep concern about the proposed service cuts, saying they reinforced de facto segregation by further limiting where students, many of them Black and Brown, could go. A third of all Baltimore public school students and 60% of all high schoolers rely on the MTA to get to school.
"It makes students' lives way more difficult than it has to be,” Kane said.
Mike McMillan, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, was glad to learn the bus cuts had been called off. He had worried that reducing routes and service could jeopardize the health and safety — and eventually the jobs — of the more than 2,500 MTA operators he represents.
“They’ll be happy to see there won’t be more overcrowding on an already strained system,” McMillan said. “The more the riding public, who really depends on the transit system, is happy, the safer it will be for those operators on the front line.”
Asked about reduced MARC service, Steve Chan, a daily Penn Line rider and chair of the MARC Train Riders Advisory Council, said he understood the pressure the state was facing to use its limited funding “to take care of the maximum number of Maryland state residents.”
“It is reasonable for the governor to make this kind of a decision," Chan said. “Am I happy? No. But I understand.”