Charm City Sputters Down the Road

Photo by William F. Zorzi

Baltimore’s transportation director quit a couple of weeks ago.

It’s the kind of thing that would be easy to miss. There’s plenty of other bad news coming out of the City of Charm that could obscure that item.

By comparison to Baltimore’s mind-numbing body count being on pace with last year’s homicides or to former Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s resignation amid her “Healthy Holly” book woes and worse, or even to the election of the new speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, the news could understandably have been lost on many.

But it’s true.

Michelle L. Pourciau didn’t quite make it two years at the helm of the Baltimore Department of Transportation, its 1,200 employees and $207 million budget. Pourciau, appointed by Pugh in June 2017, resigned April 26, though she likely was forced to walk the plank.

The news reports made a point of mentioning an ongoing audit of the department by the inspector general. The accounts were full of foreboding, focused on her leadership, or lack thereof, and the crippled morale within the agency.

Former Baltimore transportation chief Michelle Pourciau

The simple truth, however, is that the city’s entire transportation system – a term used loosely – has been desperately broken for some time.

Which is not to give Pourciau a pass.

Since arriving in Baltimore, she has said her “top priority” was a “comprehensive transportation plan” for the city. That’s sort of like the city’s current “Field of Dreams” theory of bicycle route planning: “Build it and they will come.”

That is to say, in both cases, we’re still waiting.

Simply put, all things transportation in Baltimore are in shambles.

Truth be told, there are only two kinds of traffic engineering being practiced in the City of Baltimore these days: Bad traffic engineering. And no traffic engineering.

The real trouble is, we residents have just been ground down for so long by the miserable state of affairs that we don’t even notice the depth of dysfunction any more.

Jackasses in a hailstorm

The condition of Baltimore City byways is a kind of cross between the Trans-Siberian Highway and the Burma Road.

Recently, a visitor to the city – in all seriousness – asked if the current state of the roads was actually a government effort to reduce speeds here.

Now that’s funny.

The situation in Baltimore is far beyond the city Department of Transportation’s ability to throw down cold patch to fill up a few potholes. It comes from years of neglect, mostly stemming from the governor and Maryland General Assembly transferring hundreds of millions of dollars – a sort of highway robbery – from the Transportation Trust Fund to fill up the state’s bleeding General Fund and balance the budget some years ago.

State officials were, in effect, taking from Peter to pay Paul, with the worst of it happening at the height of the nation’s economic meltdown. With those diversions, transportation money to the state’s local jurisdictions slowed to a trickle, leaving the city with, well, its shovel in its hand.

While the state’s 2013 phased-in gas tax hike has helped, local governments – especially Baltimore, the only one of the state’s 24 jurisdictions responsible for maintaining not only all its own roads, but the state routes, as well, a total of 4,800 lane miles –  may never catch back up.

Baltimore’s not-so secret

Drivers are not ones to complain out loud, at least not beyond kicking the cat, yelling at the kids and ruining dinner. They seem content enough to lumber along, intersection to intersection, slogging their way home, mindlessly stopping at traffic signal after traffic signal after traffic signal, like jackasses in a hailstorm, as state Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (and LBJ before him) might say.

Photo by William F. Zorzi

You have to wonder, though, do Baltimore officials actually drive in the city? You’d think so, but maybe not. Such is the burden of chauffeurs and bodyguards.

Sometimes, the roads cave in below our very feet. Other times, rather than plate a hole or stage construction to minimize disruption, those in the know just shut down the road. Mulberry Street, Cathedral Street, Calvert Street, Harford Road – the bigger, the better. Rush hour or no.

A while back, the city closed the entirety of North Charles Street for years to build a $30-plus million sort of metered parking lot for Johns Hopkins University, under the guise of a reconstructed roadway. The project managed to reduce the traffic capacity of the street by more than a third when reopened. Talk about a win-win.

Every four years, city officials even arrange for collapse of the retaining wall along East 26th Street next to the CSX Corp. railroad cut in Charles Village, forcing various nearby streets to be closed, whether they need to be or not.

There frequently are multi-day festivals that demand street closures. Not a problem. Shut ‘em down.

Any street. Any time. Any how. With or without a permit. For however long it is convenient for anyone other than a driver.

Detours intersect detours intersect detours intersect detours. It apparently is part of the city’s new tourism initiative to show visitors the city: Very. Slowly. Balti-MORE Than You’ve Ever Cared to See. You get the drift.

In the olden days, there was an apparently even older old-fashioned idea in Baltimore that keeping traffic moving was an important goal, that delays cost drivers and passengers time and money, not to mention compromising the environment.

The Baltimore Metro and its onetime terminus downtown, deep in the bowels of the city, were both built without closing Baltimore Street during the daytime hours, even though construction was directly below the temporary wood-planked street-bed. All done to keep buses moving across the city.

In another case, the old Interstate Division for Baltimore City (IDBC) managed to reconstruct the entire Jones Falls Expressway and its 52 bridges without shutting down the highway.

But alas, that was before the City Fathers and Mothers apparently ceased to care about endless traffic congestion and the resulting tons of exhaust and pollution dumped into the air (talk about greenhouse gases).

Forget the wasted hours spent commuting to and from work, and the increase in gasoline consumption that brings.

Forget the fact that traffic signals are deliberately timed so that there is no synchronization or progression on arterial streets any more.

Synchronized traffic signals are nonexistent in Baltimore City. Photo by William F. Zorzi

Yup, in Baltimore, laissez les bons temps rouler.

Scores of one-way arrows, among other signs, are missing from arterial streets, “keep right” delineation is gone from median strips, and parking restriction signs have arrows that point the wrong direction, if they’re anywhere at all to be found. Traffic and pedestrian signal bulbs are burned out, lights are missing visors, signal heads hang askew.

On the other hand, if you want a new, unwarranted four-way stop or a new, unneeded traffic signal, go ahead and make your request. Chances are, you’ll be in the money. Special orders don’t upset us.

The Federal Highway Administration went to the trouble years ago of coming up with a book called the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). But in Baltimore, “We don’ need no steenkin’ uniformity.”

That’s right: Make up your own signs. The city does. And some of the residents have their own version, too. It’s a veritable potpourri of different postings and mismatched placards. Invent ‘em, install ‘em, trade ‘em with friends.

Feeling lucky? Go ahead, take a chance: Proceed through your green light. Or not. It’s a crapshoot really, given how running red lights has become a pastime for drivers in the City of Charm.

Good times.

Routine double parking? It’s a citywide problem, though if you need to see an example, drop by the east side of the 1100 block of North Calvert Street, just about anytime, 24-7.

It’s an obstacle course, driving in the city. A trip to the fun house.

Into the void

All of this is not just a passing gripe from one cranky observer. Baltimore’s transportation in recent years has been the brunt of a seemingly endless litany of embarrassments.

Consider:

Allstate Insurance Co. last year found that Baltimore drivers are the absolute worst among those in 200 cities ranked by the insurer. Allstate followed up with a report earlier this year that found Baltimore drivers were again dead last – this time for driving safely in snowy conditions.

Commuters here in the Baltimore area – yes, larger than just the city limits – consistently for years have had the longest haul of nearly anyone else in the entire United States, longer even than what’s faced by drivers in Los Angeles. The most recent data show the one-way travel time, on average, for Baltimore-area commuters is 31.5 minutes long – roughly five minutes longer than the national average.

Baltimore City’s auditor – who quit in February, after only eight months in the job – reported last year that after reviewing BDOT’s paperwork for Fiscal 2017, she found the department was unable to provide documentation to support various claims made in its budget and in accountability reports to CitiStat, which tracks city agencies’ performance data.

Among the areas where documentation was missing or did not match up with agency assertions were: its assessment of roadway paving; the cost of traffic sign installation; timeliness of street cut repair inspections; adequacy of street lighting; and number of Charm City Circulator bus riders.

The city’s new inspector general issued a report in February that was just as damning, finding that a husband and wife team in the Transportation Department’s Signs and Markings division had been running a side business on the taxpayers’ clock, using city-owned equipment.

Yes, some of it is glaze-over material at its best – but think if it as your tax dollars at work. Or not.

Last summer, downtown traffic was so mucked up thanks to BDOT that everything finally just ground to a halt – every day for two weeks. It must have been bad; even the daily newspaper noticed and wrote about it.

Apparently the department in its collective wisdom had decided to re-time the traffic signals at 60 intersections – some of it based on observations made on July 4, the Independence Day holiday. (Keep in mind that the timing of these interconnected signals was essentially the same for decades.)

This move supposedly was undertaken in response to a City Council resolution designed to ensure that traffic signals were synchronized properly before stepping up enforcement for “blocking the box” during rush hour at downtown intersections.

It quickly became an absolute nightmare. Eventually the department changed the timing back to what it had been, but things had been so out of hand that the Council held a hearing on the matter in which Pourciau was taken to the woodshed for more than an hour.

But even before that mess, the traffic in Baltimore was a noticeable problem, even to near-strangers.

Last spring, Valerie L. Ervin, accidental candidate for governor, made a point on at least two of her trips to Baltimore of expressing her frustration with getting around the City of Charm.

This from a resident of Montgomery County, where traffic congestion is a congenital disease.

The first time, Ervin arrived late to a candidate’s forum, apologized and then complained about the “horrific traffic” she encountered trying to get there.

The second time, the day she withdrew from the gubernatorial primary, she again arrived late for a Democratic campaign event.

When she was running for governor in 2018, Democrat Valerie Ervin turned up late to a campaign event in Baltimore when, she said, it took her three hours to get to the city from Montgomery County. Photo by William F. Zorzi

“Hi Baltimore. It’s really good to be here,” she began. “Listen, I gotta talk to the next governor about fixing the traffic signals. I literally spent three hours getting here from Silver Spring.”

Baltimore’s ugly little secret was out.

‘Wave of the future’

So, who’s got your back?

On behalf of a grateful nation, there is the Baltimore City Council.

As nature abhors a vacuum – whether it’s a mayor, legislative leader or department head – in has rushed the City Council, many of whose members are endowed with outsized ambitions and very tiny hands.

The Council could dig in, tackle the big issues, fact-find on all sorts of transportation matters – in short, fire up all that brain power down at City Hall.

Members maybe could consider remedies for Baltimore’s being woefully underfunded by the state for highway projects under the current highway users’ formula? Or examine whether the city really was overcharged $20 million for the Charm City Circulator by the free-shuttle vendor, as the city solicitor alleged in a lawsuit? Or look at ways to fix the “revolving door” problem for transportation employees quitting to work for the very same companies they had been dealing with as city employees?

Ok, maybe not so much. But fear not. Members have rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work.

In October, the Council approved so-called “Complete Streets” legislation, a sort of policy document designed to provide communities with a bigger say in the planning of transportation projects by requiring the executive branch to take certain things into consideration.

The idea was to make the city’s roadways usable by cars, buses, cyclists and pedestrians alike – essentially, an effort to promote walking, biking and public transit.

The self-congratulations trumpeting this legislative feat was remarkable. You’d have thought they passed the Magna Carta.

The very same night that the Magna Carta was sent to the mayor’s desk for signature, the Council also passed a bill requiring most new or rehabbed businesses with public bathrooms to make diaper changing facilities available to both men and women.

Brilliant. What else is there to say? Keeping the world safe for democracy is a full-time job.

Now, the Council wants to legislate what the speed limits in the City of Baltimore shall be. Forget the transportation professionals. Who needs ‘em? We got us the Baltimore City Council to guide us to the light.

This is the same City Council that last year didn’t even blink as it shamelessly gutted the City Charter’s provisions governing Baltimore’s Ethics Board – a measure, initiated by then-Mayor Pugh – that was presented to voters in November as a simple housekeeping measure.

But all that was before Healthy Holly began to slip beneath the waves, causing Council members to suddenly find religion and pursue new ethics measures for The Public Good. The Council is now awash in high-minded proposals, including possible changes to the City Charter and Maryland Constitution regarding ethics and removal of the mayor that will have to be put before voters, if they pass.

There seems to be a whole lotta ethics and morality going on now down there at City Hall.

Not to be outdone, though, the Maryland General Assembly got into the act this year with a now-heavily amended bill sponsored by some members of the city delegation.

The legislation would expand the state definition of “Complete Streets Design Features” to include a new one regarding access to “stores providing healthy food” in food deserts. Those food deserts would have to be designated by the Maryland secretary of Housing and Community Development, after considering recommendations from a state Interagency Food Desert Advisory Committee.

Seriously.

The bill, awaiting some sort of action, or inaction, by the governor – signature, veto or neither – would require the Maryland Department of Transportation to “facilitate access” of “bicyclists, motorists, pedestrians, and public transportation users” to said food desert stores in airport, highway and transit facilities.

Perhaps MDOT could erect blue and white signs with “Evacuation Route From Food Desert “” emblazoned on them.

The beleaguered poor people stranded in this city’s food deserts surely would be eternally grateful for directions to grocery stores, so that they might find their way aboard the electric scooters now available to all here (for a fee).

Modern-day getaway cars

One of the best things heard ‘round these parts in the last couple of years is how bike lanes and cycle tracks are being constructed in Baltimore at record speed, expense and inconvenience, in an effort to rebrand our little burgh “a world-class city.”

World-class Baltimore. It’s even beyond “Greatest City in America.”

Paris. London. Rome. New York. Baltimore.

And all because of the bikeways.

Who knew?

At the fore of Baltimore’s rocket-to-the-top strategy was the city’s Bike Share program – where rent-a-bike stations were placed prominently and strategically around town, including in the middle of what used to be traffic lanes of streets. But, alas, for a variety of reasons, that program crashed and burned, after having cost taxpayers somewhere around $3.2 million, at last count.

Roland Avenue bike lane. Photo by William F. Zorzi

Bike Share had become passe anyway. Then-Mayor Pugh told us so last year in announcing the city’s new “microtransit” scheme.

The next big thing was the “electric” scooter – “the wave of the future,” Healthy Holly informed us, as she rode a keen, green scooter in front of City Hall last August, and Pourciau looked on.

While it is just as easy to bike the wrong way down a one-way downtown street at night without lights as it is to ride a scooter under the same conditions, battery-powered scooters actually have it all over bicycles.

They make most excellent get-away vehicles, for instance.

In December, some poor sinner was changing a flat tire on a car in Northeast Baltimore a few evenings before Christmas, when police say another guy happened by on a scooter, pulled out a handgun, stuck him up for his cellphone and scooted away.

That’s almost as bad as finding coal in your stocking.

Then, there’s the fun of joy riding on the JFX, as shown a couple weeks later by a local television station. A video, filmed with a cellphone by someone in a passing car, showed a small, but quite amused, four-teen crew perpetrating a breach of the peace northbound on the expressway approaching the North Avenue interchange and having a good ol’ time.

That never happened on a bike – nor would it.

Besides, scooters are easier to discard. Police late last year retrieved five of them that had been given the heave-ho into the Inner Harbor.

Bicycle bullies rule

Simply mentioning bicycles in less than the most favorable light is guaranteed to bring yips, yaps and howls of outrage from the so-called “advocates.” Much of the fireworks and drama over bikes, bike lanes, cycle tracks and the like have been set off by the Bicycle Bullies, those folks who are given to hyperbolic rants.

The local newspaper invariably rings them up, whether the Bullies have a dog in the fight or not, as they’re always good for a frequently inflammatory quote.

For the BBs, there is no measured weighing of the pros and cons, no studies, no compromise, no middle ground. It’s their way – or the highway, so to speak.

And if you don’t agree with them, not only will the excoriate you in the grateful local press, they’ll even sue you.

That’s what happened almost a couple of years ago now, when the city threatened to yank out a bike lane in East Baltimore, citing alleged safety concerns on a Canton street. The BBs filed suit, the city settled, and the BBs won the day, emerging victorious.

Somehow, the Baltimore City Fire Department – and for some peculiar reason not the Department of Transportation – ended up as the heavy in that match. That probably should come as no surprise, though.

Everyone knows the Baltimore City Fire Department cares not a lick for your safety, has it in for bike riders and is in the pocket of General Motors.

In fact, it is common knowledge that no city firefighter – or family member – even so much as owns a bicycle. The word has come down from on high: If they want to own a bicycle, then let them go out to one of the suburban counties and fight fire for a volunteer company there, instead.

Drawing nearly as much heat as the Canton Bike Lane Conundrum has been the bike route along Roland Avenue in North Baltimore.

This is a battle that dragged on for years as the bike route design went through a couple of iterations. The most recent was a protected cycle track, essentially a bike lane in which a parking lane separates bicyclists from traffic.

Trouble was, the street wasn’t wide enough to accommodate all the things that were needed to make it work, and traffic kept plowing into the rear and sides of parked cars.

The number of accidents along Roland Avenue was so high that a local pharmacy put up posters in its windows showing photograph after photograph of parked cars that had been smashed while sitting innocently adjacent to the bike lanes. The amount of accident detritus, auto parts and tree debris that accumulated in the cycle lanes seemed at times prohibitive.

In one spot, just outside of a couple of schools, the city dished out an extra big helping of plastic bollards to prevent vehicles from parking in the bike lanes and to stop the double parking from becoming triple parking during the start of the school day and dismissal times.

In no time, unknown persons in unknown vehicles mowed down the plastic “flex posts,” making the street look like the dark end of the alleys at the old Colt Lanes after a bad Saturday night of ten pins.

Many residents were up in arms over the entire affair; yet, the Bicycle Bullies were relentless.

In an op-ed piece supporting the City Council’s Magna Carta effort that appeared in the local newspaper, a top BB bashed the residents of Roland Park, not-quite-casually mentioning that developers of that one-time suburb in the 19th Century were backed by “foreign investors” with “roots in the slave trade.”

Slavers? Oh, well then, in that case, game over: You’ll have a protected cycle track, and you’ll like it.

Ultimately, on her way out the mayoral back door, Healthy Holly ordered the cycle track removed and a standard bike lane reinstalled, which occurred in the last few weeks.

But there are plenty more, including one along Walther Avenue/Boulevard, where nary a cyclist has been spotted – yet – and traffic backs up in a single lane every workday of the week.

And, of course, there’s the “Big Jump” bikeway, linking the area around Druid Lake to Remington by separating a wide path – mostly on eastbound Druid Park Lake Drive and the 28th Street bridge over the Jones Falls Valley – with heavy-plastic, orange-and-white Jersey barriers.

The Big Jump has been promoted as a “Pop-Up Bikeway,” sort of like the low-bid costume store springing open two weeks before Halloween in a vacant storefront at the mall. And just like a recurring Halloween nightmare, that “bikeway” is sure to never go away now, no matter how few people use it.

On a high note, there is one good thing about Maryland Avenue-Cathedral Street cycle track, which narrows the street to one lane of traffic from Charles Village into the Central Business District.

It definitely helps prepare drivers for road conditions in the City of Charm after a snow storm, where a single lane of any of the city’s four-lane arterial streets is frequently the only thing that gets plowed.

To wit: Three years ago, after Baltimore and much of the East Coast was slammed by a wicked record-setting snowstorm, dubbed “Snowzilla,” it took drivers more than two hours to make their way from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Johns Hopkins University – less than four miles – at rush hour.

Homicidal drivers probably could have given city workers a pass for not clearing the streets – were it not a full week after all flakes stopped falling from the heavens.

No holiday for the busman

So, have you tried to take a bus in Baltimore recently?

Not the buses that Johns Hopkins and other institutions now fill the streets with. You know, the ones that pay no attention to the laws requiring that they pull to the curb to pick up and discharge passengers. No, the Maryland Mass Transit Administration’s buses – the other ones that pay no attention to the laws for pulling to the curb.

A few years ago, Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. killed Baltimore’s Red Line, a light railway that was planned to run crosstown, and in its stead, his administration shuffled the deck on the city’s transit system, which the MTA runs, and renamed it BaltimoreLink.

At great expense, they dropped some bus routes, changed all the bus-line numbers, installed new, unreadable bus-stop signs and declared victory.

Almost immediately, studies showed, 80 percent of the shiny new BaltimoreLink buses started showing up on time – what was said to be a historic improvement in efficiency.

It must have been true; the agency put out a press release stating as much. It’s unclear, however, that the city’s actual bus riders got the good news about all the efficiency they were now lucky enough to experience.

Efficient or not, rush-hour riders in downtown Baltimore now are experiencing a transit what’s-old-is-new-again standby – the bus lane.

Bus lanes? Yup, they’re all the rage.

The interest is cyclical, it seems.

The city first put them downtown in 1958. That’s right, more than 60 years ago, back when “Big Tommy” D’Alesandro was mayor.

Years later, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer tried to resurrect them out on York Road in 1974, when community leaders were trying to breathe life into Northeast Baltimore by rebranding it “The New York Road.”

Mixed results, at least initially, when people were still paying attention.

The city – which by law still has some say over how buses run on its streets, though it seems to have relinquished all control – recycled the notion on Pratt and Lombard streets in December 2009 under Mayor Sheila Dixon, a couple of transportation directors ago.

In 2016, the city expanded the bus lane program, and the following year, the MTA got involved by having some of the bus lanes painted red downtown.

At the time, the state transit administrator said this bold new venture would “allow us to continue to deliver on our promise of transforming transit in Baltimore.”

Transforming transit.

He quietly resigned two weeks later, after spending nearly $70,000 transforming the look of his office with new furniture on a no-bid contract.

You would think the MTA would be less concerned with transformation and more concerned with the fact that you can’t tell where bus stops in the city begin and end – because the arrows on the newly designed transformative transit-stop signs can’t be seen.

Well, at least red-painted lanes on the street are festive, especially during the holiday season.

Au revoir

As much fun as this has been – much like driving in Baltimore – all good things must come to an end. So, we now bid Transportation Director Pourciau adieu and wish her equal success elsewhere in the world – perhaps back to the red-light- and speed-camera company, where she once worked. (The firm is, after all, under contract with the Baltimore Department of Transportation.)

We shall not see her like again.

William F. Zorzi, city resident, bicyclist, driver and occasional bus rider, is a former transportation engineer for the City of Baltimore.

[email protected]

 

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