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Transportation

Baltimore Must Embrace Transit Vision While the Feds Are Flush With Funds, Groups Say

A Maryland Transit Administration light rail car stops in downtown Baltimore. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

With the federal government poised to spend billions of dollars to modernize the nation’s infrastructure, the Baltimore region must unite behind a new vision for mass transit, a group of civic leaders said on Monday.

Their campaign, called Baltimore’s Transit Future, hopes to unite elected leaders, the business community and the public in support of a long-range plan to expand bus and rail service. They also want to make existing service more reliable.

“We’re at an inflection point of opportunity to really do this,” said Peter Scher, board chair for the Greater Washington Partnership.

The effort will be shaped by six “pillars,” which will include reducing the repair backlog, improving access to job centers, equity and the development of a 10-year “Rapid Transit Expansion Program.”

“As a region, we’ve under-invested in our transit system for decades, and we need substantial investments to modernize the system to better connect people with opportunity,” said Joe McAndrew, head of regional mobility and infrastructure at the partnership.

“We entered the pandemic with a transit system that was unreliable, infrequent and unable to connect enough residents to key destinations within a reasonable travel period,” he added. “We now leave the pandemic in an even worse position, with less frequent service due to transit operator shortages.”

The campaign to bolster transit service in the city and its surrounding suburbs is being spearheaded jointly by the partnership and the Greater Baltimore Committee. The groups said they launched their effort now in part to get candidates for office to focus on the existing system’s shortfalls.

Baltimore’s rail system pales in comparison to Metro, the commuter rail network in the Washington, D.C. region, even though both were launched at the same time. The region’s bus network performs below cities of comparable size.

Passage of a federal infrastructure bill has spurred conversations about the need to improve transit in Baltimore, with many advocates arguing for the creation of an authority similar to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

An authority, backers argue, would be more responsive to the region’s needs than the Maryland Transit Administration, which provides existing service.

In May, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) vetoed legislation that would have mandated a study on whether the state should create a Baltimore-based regional transit board, a top priority of mobility advocates.

The following month, the MTA unveiled seven east-west transit alternatives similar to the Red Line, which Hogan axed in 2015. Transit Administrator Holly Arnold called the release of the feasibility study “a pretty major step” in advancing the state’s Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan.

As the region tries to bounce back from the pandemic, and with significant expansion underway at Tradepoint Atlantic, business leaders said the region is being held back by its substandard bus and rail operations.

“Many who do not participate in the workforce do so because of a lack of reliable public transportation,” said Arun Subhas, managing partner at Ernst & Young’s Baltimore office. “Businesses with 24-hour work shifts need better transit systems for their employees [and] a safer environment.”

“The places that are more effected are our under-served communities, low-income neighborhoods, minority communities, that rely on mass transit systems for access to jobs, education, health care and social connections.”

Leaders of the Baltimore’s Transit Future campaign said they are not endorsing the authority concept, nor have they coalesced behind any particular modes of travel or routes.