“Are We Better Off?” was the question posed by Brian O’Malley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance at a recent meeting of Transit Choices, a local group advocating for improved transportation options in the city and region. He was referring to the overhaul of the Baltimore region’s public transit services, branded as BaltimoreLink, which launched in June, 2017. His own organization, operating since 2007, was formed as a coalition of corporate, philanthropic and civic leaders uniting around a common agenda: “improving and expanding transportation options for the citizens and businesses of Central Maryland.”
To provide some context, BaltimoreLink was presented as a transformative redesign of the bus services. This transit initiative was announced in 2015 by Gov. Larry Hogan just months after the governor had made his decision to forgo proceeding with the Red Line, the east-west light-rail route that had been the subject of planning and engineering design for over a decade.
“I stood here on this very spot 19 months ago and committed that we were going to transform Baltimore’s broken transit system,” Hogan said at a news conference at the West Baltimore MARC station. “And we have done exactly what we said we were going to do. BaltimoreLink signifies the state’s long-term commitment to this city.”
The new system is built around 12 color-designated, high-frequency (i.e., service every 15 minutes or better during peak periods) CityLink routes into Baltimore’s downtown. Less frequent LocalLink routes radiate from these backbone services. The overhaul was also to provide about a dozen weekday ExpressLink commuter routes; some of these have since been discontinued due to low ridership.
Brian O’Malley (no relation to the former governor) explained how his organization went about assessing BaltimoreLink one year and two months after it began its operations. He identified five metrics that should be applied: Fast, Frequent, Reliable, Connected and Walkable. A summary of how CMTA rates the system on these factors is presented below:
- Fast – The bus system overhaul was made with the promise that it would make transit faster. CMTA claims that its analysis is thwarted by MTA’s failure to publish data on transit speed.
- Frequency – CMTA did find that BaltimoreLink resulted in more people living near buses or trains scheduled to run with high frequency.
- Reliability – Again CMTA’s efforts were thwarted by a change in MTA’s definition of On-Time Performance (OTP).
- Connectivity – CMTA found marginal improvement in access to jobs identified as “high opportunity” by the Opportunity Collaborative study released in 2015; there was a marginal decrease in access to all jobs.
- Walkability – improving walkability around transit stops was not a stated goal for BaltimoreLink.
In light of these mixed findings, CMTA offers the following recommendations towards achieving the system’s desired results.
- Improve transparency – The MTA should regularly report on the aspects of transit that are important to riders, data on OTP, frequency and reliability of service.
- Prioritize transit in terms of evaluating bus priority lanes and traffic signal priority (this has particular relevance to the performance of the light-rail service as it navigates Baltimore’s downtown streets).
- Focus on frequency – MTA should maintain the headway levels promised for the high-frequency network and identify corridors for expanding that network.
- Reverse budget cuts, including restoration of sharp cuts in capital funding proposed for FY 2019 through FY 2023.
- Produce a multi-modal plan for transportation in the region with meaningful public engagement for the region’s transit system.
The meeting concluded with concerns that the transportation priorities being identified by the local jurisdictions that do not reflect these aspirations. Comments from the audience also raised concerns about the role of the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board. (Was it doing more than “stapling together” the transportation improvements requested by each of the local jurisdictions?)
Del. Brooke Lierman, representing southeast Baltimore in the Maryland General Assembly, was in attendance at the Transit Choices meeting. She cited her amendment to the major transit bill originally introduced to provide capital funding for WMATA (the Washington regional transportation system).
Lierman describes her amendment as having the following goals (1) increase both operating and capital funding for MTA; (2) require a full capital needs assessment by MTA; and (3) require MTA to work with local riders and stakeholders to develop a new transit plan for Central Maryland. She suggested that this initiative, when put into motion, could address the various hoped-for improvements to the BaltimoreLink service.
Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.