Bal­ti­moreLink bus plan falls short

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Eli­jah E. Cum­mings Rep. Eli­jah E. Cum­mings is a Demo­cratic con­gress­man from Bal­ti­more and a se­nior mem­ber of the Com­mit­tee on Trans­porta­tion and In­fra­struc­ture. His email is Rep.Cum­mings@Mail.House.Gov.

Our de­ci­sions about trans­porta­tion de­ter­mine much more than where roads or bridges or tun­nels or rail lines will be built. They de­ter­mine the con­nec­tions and bar­ri­ers that peo­ple will en­counter in their daily lives — and thus how hard or easy it will be for peo­ple to get where they need and want to go.

Ground­break­ing new re­search by Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity eco­nomics pro­fes­sor Raj Chetty and his col­leagues seeks to quan­tify how the neigh­bor­hood in which a child grows up — the con­nec­tions and bar­ri­ers that a child ex­pe­ri­ences — frames the chances for suc­cess that child will have in life. Among the 100 ju­ris­dic­tions stud­ied, a child­hood spent in Bal­ti­more re­sulted in one of the steep­est re­duc­tions in a child’s life­time earn­ings.

The con­nec­tions and bar­ri­ers in Bal­ti­more have been shaped to a stun­ning de­gree by the legacy of poor trans­porta­tion de­ci­sions. Many of the com­mu­ni­ties in Bal­ti­more in which op­por­tu­nity is most lim­ited were lit­er­ally cut in half by the “Road to Nowhere.”

And be­cause we built only min­i­mal sub­way and light rail sys­tems, Bal­ti­more — un­like neigh­bor­ing Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — is a city in which the bus sys­tem re­mains the pri­mary pub­lic trans­porta­tion con­veyance. Ac­cord­ing to the Bus Net­work Im­prove­ment Project (BNIP) com­piled by the MTA in De­cem­ber 2014, MTA’s core bus ser­vice op­er­ates more than 60 bus lines serv­ing more than 6,000 bus stops.

BNIP also re­ports that more than half of MTA’s rid­ers use the core bus net­work every day, and more than half of bus rid­ers cited get­ting to their jobs as the pur­pose of their trips.

Most Bal­ti­more res­i­dents who ride the bus choose it be­cause they have few other op­tions. Ac­cord­ing to BNIP, more than 60 per­cent of rid­ers on MTA’s core bus ser­vice did not have ac­cess to a per­sonal ve­hi­cle.

For many Bal­ti­more res­i­dents, the MTA bus ser­vice’s routes and tim­ings de­ter­mine the pat­terns — and the very reach — of their lives.

Many of the Bal­ti­more com­mu­ni­ties in which op­por­tu­nity is most lim­ited —and in which ac­cess to a pri­vate ve­hi­cle is low­est — would have been served by the pro­posed Red Line light rail sys­tem.

This is why the gov­er­nor’s de­ci­sion to can­cel the Red Line and walk away from as much as $900 mil­lion in fed­eral fund­ing that could have been in­vested in that project was a de­ci­sion about more than just a rail line. It was a de­ci­sion that will shape the con­nec­tions and bar­ri­ers that will con­tinue to de­fine the ge­og­ra­phy of our city and its res­i­dents’ lives for decades to come.

Af­ter can­cel­ing the Red Line, the gov­er­nor an­nounced that he would make an in­vest­ment of $135 mil­lion to redesign the Bal­ti­more bus sys­tem and pro­vide “more re­li­able and timely tran­sit” and “bet­ter con­nec­tions to jobs.”

While op­er­at­ing its bus sys­tem ef­fi­ciently is the ba­sic re­spon­si­bil­ity of any tran­sit sys­tem, the gov­er­nor promised his ini­tia­tive, known as the Bal­ti­moreLink plan, would be more than just a route re­align­ment — it would trans­form the en­tire sys­tem.

Un­for­tu­nately, the MTA has al­ready found that the changes pro­posed in the Bal­ti­moreLink plan will not ap­pre­cia­bly re­duce travel times.

This is deeply dis­ap­point­ing be­cause, ac­cord­ing to a study re­leased by the Cen­ter for Trans­porta­tion Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, a typ­i­cal res­i­dent of the Bal­ti­more-Tow­son re­gion can reach fewer than 138,000 of our re­gion’s 1.2 mil­lion jobs in un­der an hour us­ing pub­lic trans­porta­tion. As a re­sult, a Bal­ti­more res­i­dent who re­lies on the MTA for trans­porta­tion must travel for a pro­longed pe­riod to ac­cess many of the re­gion’s jobs — or seek only those jobs that are closer to home.

And now, a study is­sued by the Cen­tral Mary­land Trans­porta­tion Al­liance (CMTA) to co­in­cide with the end of the sec­ond pub­lic com­ment pe­riod for Bal­ti­moreLink has found that there is “great vari­abil­ity” in the ef­fects of the changes pro­posed un­der the plan. Some — but not all — ar­eas of the city would gain im­proved ac­cess to jobs on week­days, and ac­cess to jobs might ac­tu­ally be re­duced on week­ends.

That the Bal­ti­moreLink plan may not be trans­for­ma­tive is not sur­pris­ing, given that the $135 mil­lion in ad­di­tional fund­ing the gov­er­nor is pre­pared to pro­vide to the bus sys­tem is less than half the money spent just plan­ning the Red Line and equates to 1.4 per­cent of MTA’s op­er­at­ing ex­penses, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Leg­isla­tive Ser­vices.

What is sur­pris­ing is that the gov­er­nor’s ad­min­is­tra­tion would dis­miss CMTA’s re­port as “com­plete non­sense.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s will­ing­ness to re­draw the net­work could be a great chance for the MTAto cre­ate the new con­nec­tions lo­cal res­i­dents need — but only if the ad­min­is­tra­tion takes se­ri­ously all the com­ments it re­ceives and makes the in­vest­ments nec­es­sary to achieve the trans­for­ma­tions Bal­ti­more was promised.

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