Friday, October 23, 2015

Bus Plan: Did Hogan deliver?

The Hogan administration showed yesterday at their Link Bus announcement that they can put up a good show: There were two full size veiled stealth buses, from one them the gov and his entourage emerged after it had driven from the other end of the commuter lots, a mock shelter replete with a transit pylon and a redesigned bus stop sign, an almost full size backdrop canvas rendering of a Baltimore street scene, no up-front press release and a good amount of media, onlookers and supporters as an audience, all made for an effective presentation.
Cameras, surprise and action

Was it more than "window dressing", the term County Exec Kamenetz used to describe the bus initiative, or is Mayor Rawlings Blake and the SUN editorial right that this plan is far from being transformative? (Both sounded with their pretty harsh criticism like they want to run against Hogan in 2018). 

Certainly the Administration had raised the expectations themselves with a whole barrage of condemning statements about Baltimore's transit (which really is the State's transit) and promises about their intended remedies. Here a sampling:
“We concluded we could provide improvements to the Baltimore transit system faster than what the construction of the Red Line do.”

“I fully understand the issues of people who rely on MTA to get to work.”

“I think the idea that says it takes you 90 minutes to do something on public transit that you could do by car in 20 is unacceptable. We have to find solutions to that.”
Secretary Rahn in front of a
CityLink branded bus
“We can do other things that provide solutions to more problems than just what the Red Line was going to be.”

“Our goal will be to provide services at least as good as what the Red Line was projected to deliver.” (All statements made by Secretary Pete Rahn at the July 21 Joint Committee Meeting)
“We’re going to bring MTA into the 21st century.” – Paul Comfort
 - Adapt bus service to where demand is today
 - Provide more suburb-to-suburb bus service
 - Explore using deviated fixed route service
 - Split some long, crosstown bus routes
 - Implement the BUS USA procurement to upgrade bus locator technology
 - Host an app developer conference
 - Bring back the adopt-a-stop program to promote bus stop cleanliness and amenities
 - Adapt bus service to other existing services and integrate with them
 (All statements made by Paul Comfort at the August 3 MTA Stakeholder Meeting) 
“Frankly right now, the transit system in Baltimore is broken, and we’re going to fix it.” – Pete Rahn at the August 10, Legislator Meeting
MTA Administrator Paul Comfort
 “We are going to do like a Houston”-type reform of the bus routes.Paul Comfort, September 16, Transit Choices Meeting
At the event there was even more hyperbole including an assurance that "decades of administrations had done nothing for transit", a statement that made former Republican MDOT Secretary Robert Flannigan, standing in the first row, look at his shoes. 

I am amazed how Governor Hogan always peppers his announcements with hurtful invective that has little to do with the truth (He did the same at the prison announcement and even more when he announced the Red Line was cancelled).

The CityLink bus plan currently mostly consists of words (except for the two wrapped buses and the sign mock-up), but using the previous BNIP plan, its consultants (Foursquare) and MTA project manager (Michael Walk) and several suggestions of Jimmy Rouse's Transit Choices action group as the underpinning, the plan indeed includes some sweeping changes.

Here some pluses:

  • Foremost the upgrade and modification of the current 4 Quickbus lines to a connected network of 12 high frequency faster Link buses crisscrossing the core area of the city. If these buses will indeed stop less often, get signal priority, bus lanes and run all day on a 10 minute headway, such services could greatly enhance the experience of many riders. This high performance bus overlay approach is what cities such as Los Angeles, DC and Houston have been doing for some time. Its advantage is that by running buses on high ridership lines faster, efficiency is gained that can be pooled back into the system, a positive feed-back loop of positive rider experience. Making these lines shorter than they currently are makes them also more reliable.
  • Branding these buses by giving them a different look, a more recognizable name and colors for eas of identification should make the current quite obscure mish-mash of Express, Quick and regular buses easier to understand for riders
  • Adding an overlay usually causes little opposition as long as no significant cuts in service are made elsewhere
    Mock up of upgraded bus stop signs
  • The addition of additional commuter bus lines has a regional impact that should bring support from Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford Counties and do to some extent what Executive Kamenetz had recently suggested, to create a broader regional base of support for the core area's transit system, a support that was clearly weak when it came to the Red Line. (below the Express Link called suburban lines):
  • Express BusLink 100: All-day, bi-directional service between Owings Mills and BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport/BWI Rail Station
  • Express BusLink 101: All day, bi-directional service between Towson, Pikesville and Owings Mills Metro Subway Station
  • Express BusLink 102: Bi-directional express service between the White Marsh Park and Ride Lot, Towson Town Center and the Lutherville Light Rail Station
  • Express BusLink 105: All-day, bi-directional express service between the White Marsh Park and Ride Lot and BWI Airport/BWI Business District Station
  • Express BusLink 107: Express service between the Patapsco Light Rail station and the Fort Meade area's Odenton MARC Station during peak hours
  • The proposed plan comes with additional money, drivers and buses (although it isn't clear how many of the 60 new drivers and 87 new buses will simply be replacements).
  • Implementation starts this Sunday with the improvements to the QB 40 line. Immediate and convincing success with the first pilot will decide about the fate of all the rest.

Here what's not addressed (yet):
  • Will $135 million pay for 12 priority bus lines with the needs of additional rolling stock and drivers, branding buses, new signs, lane modifications and all, and for how long?
  • The promised reform of all standard bus routes is mostly a promise right now and does require public comment, usually a step where reforms get bogged down in Title 6 issues of equitable treatment of disadvantaged populations. (This also happened in Houston).
  • There is little evidence that State and local jurisdictions really are on the same page as needed for creating truly performing priority bus lines which need hubs, lanes, signal priority and a number of other measures that can't be controlled by the state and need money and support from the City and the Counties where the lines run.
    The rendering shows a Baltimore Street
    "busway" with just buses and pedestrians.
    Aside from the question if that would be
    desirable, it couldn't be achieved  without
     City  collaboration and investment

  • There was no talk about benchmarks and metrics with which actual performance can be measured against a set standard. The lack of such targets (how much faster should the priority bus run compared to today, how many more riders should it carry, what on-time performance should it have) was already absent at previous bus reforms, especially Ehrlich's Quickbus, which, as a result, never stood out as such a clearly better performing bus).
  • There was no word about the liability that the State took on with communities when it promised the Red Line and encouraged all communities in the corridor to leverage the transit investment to make ambitious community plans. These plans exist now and many of those should still be realized instead of leaving those communities simply holding the bag with no expectation that the State would assist to deliver. Many of the plans, concepts and visions could also support an enhanced bus system and should be done, regardless if the Red Line gets built or not. 
  • the color coding of the MTA buses will be confused with the Circulator and limits how many such priority lines could be created (as there wouldn't be enough distinguishable colors in the rainbow).
In my opinion, the Mayor made a mistake when she didn't show up yesterday. Mayoral candidates Stokes and Pugh as well as Council President Young knew better than staying away, pouting. They understood that the city, the disadvantaged communities and the vast majority of the 300,000 daily users of MTA transit really stand to receive benefits if this plan is implemented with urgency, resolve, expediency and the necessary resources. Collaboration is key for any type of real success.
Senator Pugh stating that a first class city
needs first class transit

Clearly all the bus improvements together don't replace a high performing and connected rail transit system and none of this plan brings back the resources, hopes and opportunities of the Red Line which this administration squandered when it aborted the project in the last minute. 

The bus improvements should have been done a long time ago, and yes, the State has an obligation to run these buses efficiently and yes they don't replace the Red Line at all. 

None of this makes the bus plan any less desirable or less urgent, though. What responsible planners and politicians need to do, is support the impetus of the plan, assist in making it happen, ask for the elements that are missing, hold the Governor and the MTA accountable and underpin efficient bus operations with local action. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
last updated 10/23 14:25h for inclusion of statement by transit advocates.
Baltimore SUN editorial
For a more detailed analysis of the proposed line changes see Ben Groff's analysis here
For an initial response of a coalition of transit advocates see below the map

A map of the color coded high frequency lines. North Avenue will have one only as far west as
Pennsylvania Avenue

Below is a first take developed by 1000 Friends of Maryland, Central Maryland Transportation Alliance  and Citizens Planning & Housing Association.  The proposed bus route changes is a piece that we have advocated for extensively and requires careful review.  We’ll be looking at that closely over the coming weeks.

On Thursday Governor Hogan, Transportation Secretary Rahn and Maryland Transit Administration CEO Comfort announced Baltimore Link, a package of changes to public transportation in the greater Baltimore region. Transit advocates will spend the coming days reviewing the components of Baltimore Link and preparing to provide input during the MTA’s public comment period (thru Dec. 17th). Here is a quick reaction from partners in the Transportation For Maryland coalition: 1,000 Friends of Maryland, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and Citizens Planning & Housing Association.
• Worthy Goals. We agree with the goals of better connecting the existing modes, improving access to jobs, improving access to high-frequency transit, and improving service reliability.
• Watch Your Money. The statement that this represents $135 million in new investment must be viewed in the proper context.
o In June the Governor cancelled the Red Line project that would have invested $736 million in state funding over the next six years and additional funding beyond that.
o The $900 million in federal funding the Red Line would have leveraged will now go to projects in other states.
o The source of the $135 million is partly funding moved from investment that would have gone to the Port of Baltimore.
o The $135 million will be invested over at least 2 years.

• Timing is Important. 
o We applaud the improvements to be implemented within the next few months including expansion of the bicycle accommodations on weekend MARC trains, expanded hours on the Central Light Rail and new bus service between major activity centers in the region.
o Other improvements mentioned in the plan are promised planning funding, but not construction funding. Others are framed as contingent upon costly and complicated actions by Baltimore City.

• Bus network overhaul. We have called for years for a comprehensive update to Baltimore’s bus route network and look forward to reviewing the proposed changes in more detail. We seek changes to the bus network that will result in better access to employment, particularly for low-skill and mid-skill workers.
The proposed plan does represent improvements to Baltimore's transit system. However, we need to truly connect all of our residents and neighborhoods to the opportunities available in our region. We look forward to reviewing the details of the plan and to participating in the public engagement process, to continue advocating for the level of transit investment the Baltimore region needs.

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