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Donald C. Fry: Transit must connect workers, jobs

New research on Baltimore-area mobility starkly frames compelling transit challenges facing the Greater Baltimore region.

Data-driven maps produced for the Opportunity Collaborative, a sustainable development coalition of government agencies and nonprofits that includes the Greater Baltimore Committee, detail cumbersome transit travel times for most city and county neighborhoods inside the beltway to key emerging industry centers where new jobs are being created.

For example, two prominent clusters in the region with a high concentration of “middle-skill” jobs — those requiring a high school degree but less than a four-year college degree — include the new Amazon warehouse site in southeast Baltimore and the Nursery Road/BWI corridor in southwest Baltimore County and northern Anne Arundel County.

But for those without a car, the “No. 1 inhibitor” to obtaining a job at those locations is access, Baltimore Development Corp. President and CEO William H. Cole told GBC leaders last week.

“Most people in the region are more than 90 minutes away via public transportation to those jobs — each way,” Cole said. “That means you’re looking at three hours of a commute to get to those jobs.”

Cole points to two maps produced by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council for the Opportunity Collaborative, which is working to craft a regional plan for sustainable development.

The maps plot the transit commute times at 9 a.m. on Mondays for residents of Baltimore city and residents in Baltimore County neighborhoods adjacent to the city that have high concentrations of potential “middle-skill” workers who would be excellent prospects for jobs being created in and around the city.

The maps dramatically demonstrate Baltimore’s transit challenge. Most Baltimore city residents and those in adjacent county suburbs will have to endure one-way commutes of 90 minutes or more via transit to get to the Amazon work site, according to the maps. The same goes for commutes to the Nursery Road/BWI industry cluster.

By contrast, the maps show that most sections of the city and in the county inside the beltway are within a one-hour commute via transit to Baltimore’s downtown, reflecting the city’s transit needs in the 1950s. Nevertheless, more than half of city neighborhoods today are beyond a 30-minute transit commute from downtown, the maps show.

Looking at the maps for the Amazon and Nursery Road/BWI sites, however, “makes you want to scream because those are real opportunities for Baltimore and Baltimore County residents and they just can’t get there,” Cole said.

At Amazon, for example, more than 2,000 jobs are expected to be created eventually, and as many as 4,000 direct and indirect jobs could be generated there. But the major workforce barrier is access to adequate public transportation, he said.

It’s “really upsetting” when you look at the number of people who live in neighborhoods in the region who could work in well-paying, middle-skill jobs being created, Cole said. “You’ve got tremendous opportunity in all of these job centers.

“But you can’t get people from where they live to where they work in a timely fashion, and it’s starting to have an impact on our growth regionally. This isn’t a Baltimore issue. This is a regional issue.”

What are the takeaways from the data that Cole cites?

First and foremost, there can be little doubt that efficient and reliable transit is critically important to the region’s job growth — especially relating to middle-skills jobs.

Second, it’s important not just to Baltimore city, but also to the region as a whole.

Also, addressing this issue goes beyond constructing the Red Line, although building the 14.1-mile, east-west light rail system from Woodlawn to Bayview is clearly a prerequisite to creating fully integrated public transit that optimally serves the region’s workforce.

As Cole points out, resolving the region’s systemic transit dysfunction is also complicated by several layers of policy issues, including fare box recovery regulation, myriad federal transportation rules and other issues that frame Maryland Transit Administration management policies.

However, for myself and most transportation advocates, it boggles the mind that there are people of influence in the region, including a few elected officials, who, when confronted with regional transit challenges of this magnitude, would favor backing away from the Red Line rather than embracing a major east-west transit initiative that is on the verge of being built and that will transform our current fragmented rail transit into the connected system that Baltimore has needed for more than 40 years.

Addressing the issue of transit is not something to be pushed aside. It directly relates to connecting our workforce to jobs. When it comes to positioning our state’s central employment regions for economic growth, it doesn’t get any more fundamental than that.

In the Baltimore region and in the state, we need to be moving forward on strengthening transit infrastructure, not backing away from it.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His email address is