Friday, September 11, 2015

Can the MTA be reformed?

Freshman Delegate Brooke Lierman floated a big bill right in her debut term: The creation of an MTA Oversight Board with the purpose of making the MTA more effective and more accountable.
In a paper that summarizes her idea Lierman states:
The buses, light rail, and MARC trains that MTA operates routinely offer subpar service to Maryland residents. MTA complies with no reporting or planning requirements related to service quality that are specifically responsive to customer feedback. MTA’s inadequate service and operation means Marylanders are paying for busses that show up late or not at all, MARC trains that routinely break down, and unsafe light rail experiences. MTA can and must be held to a higher standard: it must do better. 
After the cancellation of the Red Line, with a new Governor and a new MTA Administrator Democrat Lierman sees her bill which didn't make it out of committee picked up by the new administration with gusto. Paul Comfort sounds as if he is hell bent to do just what Lierman intended, making the MTA more accountable and more dependable and efficient.

Comfort's strategy of increased efficiency fits nicely into a budget situation where none of the State moneys saved from the Red Line are made available for Baltimore area transit. Efficiency is the only way to make transit better without money. As I have pointed out here before, though, no system that is squeezed to the max can actually run efficient. For efficiency margins are needed in personnel, fleets and maintenance, otherwise every sickness or every broken down bus cause a ripple of poor performance across the system.
MTA Administrator Paul Comfort laying out his vision for the MTA at State Center's auditorium yesterday

Yesterday in the third of those MTA Regional Stakeholder Meetings Comfort again displayed his enthusiasm and a diverse audience their skepticism, ideas and occasional distrust. Lierman as well as other delegates and Senator Catherine Pugh (who is now running for Mayor) came to listen and occasionally speak, just like the regular folk unsure what to make of MDOT and MTA after the $3 billion for the Red Line are off the table, the MTA is subjected like all other agencies to across the board budget cuts, and the Governor steadfastly maintains that roads are needed to solve transportation problems.

For now, MTA's Comfort focus is on three metrics that the Maryland Legislature prescribed for him:
Ridership, on-time performance and fare-box recovery, He showed charts that seemed to indicate that under his now 100 day leadership these metrics are already looking up.

The attendees certainly support the first two metrics, but the third, the ratio of operating cost mandated to be recovered by transit fares and set at 35% by law, is in much dispute because it includes factors influencing the cost of operation which are beyond the control of MTA and the ratio in itself suggests that the purpose of transit is that of a business when in reality it has a broader public purpose with many external benefits not counted in the simple recovery ratio.

The laser like focus on efficiency could easily mean to look at the MTA in isolation (like the book-keepers certainly do). In the last three decades the transit conversation has expanded to see transit as an element of healthy communities, as a community builder, a tool for economic development and as a way to lift neighborhoods whose biggest economic stranglehold is lack of access to opportunity (See report of the Community Collaborative). We cannot go back to just caring about how transit operates by itself.

Paul Comfort agrees. "Transit can be the solution to so many things" he says. It remains to be seen, how the MTA can become a true partner with the City and the surrounding counties and tackle the many issues that can throttle good transit and are beyond the control of the transit agency such as:

  • Poor land use around where the MTA has fixed assets, namely rail stations like those along the Metro where each of the stations is surrounded by disinvestment or low density not transit supportive uses from Owings Mills to Hopkins (at EBDI there is at least a plan to remedy that situation and at the Charles Center Station the uptick in development has almost eliminated vacancies)
  • Lack of space for transit stops and transit hubs resulting in bus stops without amenities which are squeezed onto narrow sidewalks with buses barely having enough curb-space to service the stops
  • Practically no bus lanes (there is one on Lombard Street which nobody seems to heed). City DOT chief William Johnson apparently promised Comfort to be favorable to installing more)
  • No signal priority anywhere for buses
  • Extremely poor pavement conditions espcailly in curb lanes guaranteeing a "rough ride" for all bus riders 
  • No attention to "last mile" issues that include how to get to stop and making walking, biking, getting a Zip car or catching a shuttle a well organized option at all major transit hubs
  • Poor integration with the other transit modes by other agencies such the Charm City Circulator, the Harbor Connector (water taxi) and Amtrak. 

A good look at any of these issues shows that a lot of synergy is lying fallow here waiting to be realized. That, too, is efficiency, but it requires attention, resources and true collaboration.

The MTA and MDOT are working towards an October meeting for which MDOT Secretary Rahn has promised a set of plans and ideas on how to improve transit in the Baltimore area. As I noted before, even without the Red Line, there are many places for improvements. Some were planned as part of the Red Line and should be realized as part of improved east west transit including:

  • the Bayview MARC Station and its park&ride lot
  • the Canton Crossing park&ride lot
  • the West Baltimore redevelopment around the Ice House
  • the I-70 park&ride and trailhead
With those intercept parking lots at the east-west gateways to the city drivers could become riders served by high frequency, priority bus lines on east west corridors such as on the west side on Frederick Avenue, Edmondson Avnue (the current QB 40), North Avenue and on the east side on Orleans Street (or Fayette), Eastern Avenue and the Boston -Aliceanna Street corridor. Those lines (especially the one on North Avenue running on the east and the westside) could become the opportunity lines that make access to jobs easier.

Lierman's bill and Comforts ambition would have a good outcome, should those capital and operational investments be made within the next year.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

1 comment:

  1. Since when is a 35% cost recovery a viable business model? It's not and most people understand that is a reality of public transit, its just that the concept of low cost recovery has never sold well in the self-relaint, profit oriented culture of America. That needs to change. The value-added benefits of public transit should be sold better so that a larger portion of non-urban taxpayers would buy into it. Alas, one of the big issues that plagues the MTA is poor worker performance - rudeness, driving while on cell phones, trashing equipment, and a generally poor attitude toward the public service that MTA workers should be providing is a big problem. This seems to plague so many public services in Baltimore City. That is why Martin O'Malley's City STAT program was so important - it held supervisors, and one would hope, their employees, to a high standard of service. That would go a long way to improving the MTA's reputation among users and funders.