State says it will improve Baltimore bus system; city reps say that's not enough

After killing the $2.9 billion Red Line project, Hogan administration officials gathered city elected officials Monday for a closed-door meeting and pledged to make Baltimore's much-maligned bus system run better.

City Democrats, who had hoped the Red Line would create hundreds of jobs in struggling neighborhoods, said they expected more.


"We came here today in hopes of hearing alternative ideas to the Red Line," said state Del. Maggie McIntosh. "We leave here very frustrated and disappointed. There's not a real plan or any alternative for the kind of things the Red Line would have produced. We got 100 percent emphasis on improving the bus service, which is their job."

Federal officials had pledged $900 million, including $100 million in the 2015 budget, toward creation of the Red Line, an East-West light rail line that was projected to create 4,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs. But Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced in June he was scrapping plans to build the project, calling it a boondoggle. He said he would shift the state's share of the construction money to highway projects across Maryland.


At Monday's meeting, officials from Baltimore — including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings — were asked to fill out a form with their top five priorities for mass transit in Baltimore. Among the options listed were improving the reliability of bus service, reducing overcrowding on buses, and improving the speed of bus trips. The buses in the city are run by the Maryland Transit Administration.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn, representing Hogan, promised a plan to make improvements soon.

"We're committed on working on this and delivering results in months, not years," he said. "Frankly right now, the transit system in Baltimore is broken, and we're going to fix it."

The form also listed creating a real-time bus arrival application for smartphones and realigning bus routes as possible improvements.

"Buses in Baltimore are a huge part of the transit system," Rahn said. "When you look at Baltimore, it's a bus system. That's not necessarily bad. ... We're talking to and listening to the users of the system. We are not forcing a solution on Baltimore. ... We will provide a system that meets their needs first, and it will be a much better system."

The form did not mention "rapid bus transit" — an idea floated by Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford — that would require creating special lanes for bus use. A Hogan spokesman said afterward that the idea has not been ruled out.

Rahn also said the governor has instructed him to write the federal government this week to say the state is not proceeding with the Red Line and federal funds should be redirected for other purposes.

Mikulski expressed frustration that the governor's office was willing to forgo $900 million in federal funds for the project.


"I never thought, ever, in my closing year in the U.S. Senate, I would see a letter saying the Baltimore region rejects $900 million in federal investment," she said.

Rawlings-Blake said she left the meeting frustrated.

"My hope was to leave this meeting with some hope that there was a vision. What I heard was not a vision," Rawlings-Blake said. "I remain hopeful that moving forward we'll get some answers, other than just making the buses work."

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the administration wished Baltimore officials would have brought more ideas to the meeting.

"The point of this meeting was to get input from Baltimore leaders," he said. "Secretary Rahn came there in good faith, and the majority of them were not interested in engaging in a conversation about different ideas. That won't stop the administration from reaching out and working with people to develop better transit."

Hogan has argued that the Red Line, which would have connected Woodlawn to East Baltimore, was too expensive and poorly designed. He objected to a $1 billion tunnel that was part of the plan. While the city's elected officials and some neighborhoods backed the project, other communities, such as the Canton neighborhood association, had opposed the plan.


"There is clearly universal agreement among Baltimore's leaders that the city's existing transit options have not been adequately serving residents in the city or surrounding areas," said Hogan spokesman Matt Clark. "Governor Hogan and Secretary Rahn are focused on common sense, affordable ideas that will actually address the complaints from citizens and will make an immediate impact on the entire city — not just one part of it. Baltimoreans that are currently unable to get from their homes to work because of poor service don't want to spend another six or seven years waiting for a panacea that won't solve the city's transportation challenges."

Parts of the meeting were open to the news media to observe, but state officials closed the meeting for more than a hour.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, also a Baltimore Democrat, tweeted from inside the meeting that the "tone has shifted quickly" and "frustrations" were "escalating."

"City and regional leaders asked for a good-faith meeting about alternatives," he said afterward. "Instead we got a list of tasks that should already be goals."

Donald C. Fry, president of the pro-business group the Greater Baltimore Committee, said Rahn made clear the state's only plan for improved transit in Baltimore is to work on the current bus system and presented that as an alternative to the Red Line. "I don't think he convinced anybody in the room by a long shot," Fry said.

Baltimore is not going to get "the kind of real transformational project that the Red Line would have" been, Fry said.

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Rahn and Cummings co-chaired the meeting at the Maryland Department of Transportation headquarters in Hanover.

"It's very clear that everyone in this room is disappointed," Cummings said as the meeting ended.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young warned that a faltering Baltimore City — the state's fourth-largest jurisdiction — could impact the state's economy negatively.

"If the city dies, so will the state," he said.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who did not attend, issued a statement later echoing the criticisms expressed by city officials at the meeting. "The administration should have had a plan in place before torpedoing the Red Line," said Kamenetz, also a Democrat.