Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Looking at Baltimore and Washington as one area for transit

Fifteen years after the 2002 Baltimore Rail Plan had been unveiled, the Baltimore region has not seen any new rail project being realized. Not the ones one the map and no other ones either. For 13 years all attention had gone to the $3 billion Baltimore Red Line that the Rail Plan had identified as the highest priority. It was taken off the menu in 2015. The Washington Purple Line survived only after major State funding cuts. While Governor O'Malley's transportation Secretary Porcari (who later went to Obama's DOT) had moved towards spending almost as much money on transit as on roads and had advanced two multi-billion dollar transit projects at once, Governor Hogan is much less keen on transit, especially costly rail transi. This was also evident in his State of the State address today in which he stressed roads and bridges "in every jurisdiction of the State" through "unprecedented investment", presumably coming in part from the reallocated Red Line funds.

Transit advocates have grouped and re-grouped, wondering how the role of transit can be fortified in a State that holds the purse-strings in Maryland's transportation planning through the Transportation Trust Fund. They point out that 85% of Maryland's population live in urbanized Central Maryland where road capacity can't keep up with growth and congestion increases, making rail a logical choice.

Baltimore and Washington: One transit region. Graphic MTOC

Many questions have been asked:
  • What did the Washington area do right that made the Purple Line survive and the Red Line not?
  • How can the business community become a stronger advocate for transit?
  • Should there be additional funding sources for transit outside the Maryland? Transportation Trust Fund?
  • Should the Baltimore and the Washington area compete over transit dollars or collaborate?
  • Should the Baltimore area develop a new regional rail plan?
In response to those questions new transit advocacy coalitions have been formed, the regional Get Maryland Moving Coalition  and the statewide Maryland Transit Opportunity Coalition are new in addition to the Central Maryland Transit Alliance (CMTA), the advocacy group Transit Choices and groups such as the Transportation Equity Coalition which address the civil rights aspects of transportation funding. Get Maryland Moving is currently rallying for a House and Senate bill in Annapolis to repeal the 35% fare-box recovery mandate which is current law.

The Maryland Transit Opportunity Coalition held a transit advocacy night in Annapolis this week showcasing the extensive connected rail transit system the group envisions. With MARC and the D.C. Metrorail as core elements, the system would extend from Martinsburg, West Virginia to the west, to Waldorf, Maryland, to the south, all the way up Elkton, on Maryland’s Delaware line to the north. In October last year when the Coalition first appeared publicly, those behind the proposal said it would cost $8 billion.

The group stressed that this was the same price as the proposed roadway widening of I-270 in Montgomery County. “In the context of how expensive major highway projects are, making major progress on transit is cheaper,” said state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties. One of the transit lines in the menu is the Red Line light rail, a project that got a recent boost from a letter that the Justice Department sent indicating merit to the civil rights complaint that had been filed against the rail project's cancellation. A map of the Coalition shows how the State funds that had originally been set aside for the rail project in majority black urban Baltimore have been reallocated for road projects in predominantly white rural areas.

Expenditure of the State transportation dollars Red Line versus highways. Graphic by Kristen Ahearn, Transportation Equity Coalition

When Prince George's County Executive Baker announced that he would want to build the Red Line if he were to run for Governor and win it became clear that the project isn't necessarily dead for good.

The argument for transit is not any longer simply one about congestion and how to move people in the most effective manner. Along with the mobility question comes the question of quality of life and where people want to live these days, where businesses want to locate and what the educated, highly mobile younger population picks when they decide where in the United States to live. Good transit is as much a must-have for a modern city as coffee shops and micro breweries. But it is also a matter of equity and social justice in which transit is the key to opportunity for the growing segments of the population that don't have the ability to drive for lack of a car, lack of health or being of an age not suitable to driving.

At the transit event in Annapolis, Shyam Kannan, WMATA's Managing Director for Planning explained that assets near transit perform much batter than those relying entirely on the automobile. He stated that assets near transit represent 1% of land area but represent 8% of the tax contribution. 
purple Line

It is prudent for Baltimore transit advocates to stress the regional aspects of transit and the economic benefits of access across a much larger area than represented by the two current Metropoliltan Planning Organizations (MPOs) in Baltimore (BMC) and Washington (WashCOG), both the conduits for federal dollars coming to the region. Combined Baltimore-Washington are one of only 10 global metro conglomerates which compete for investors and business word-wide.  Howard and Montgomery Counties which both sit in part between Baltimore and Washington are two of the richest jurisdictions in America. Both have their own nascent bus transit systems and rapidly growing transit agencies. Newer, smaller suburban transit agencies which do not have to contend with old legacy systems are often the most innovative when it comes to being nimble and frugal.

Transportation knows no borders and people don't pick their destinations or jobs based on jurisdictional boundaries. It is time that the bigger region creates and integrated, seamless one ticket zones for all transit system that include rail, bus and "last mile" solutions in a fully integrated manner, regardless of the transit provider. Full farecard integration has been a common practice in Europe for decades and thanks to electronic chip cards it is now also becoming available in unlikely places such as six counties of the Tampa area which just introduced the Flamingo Card.

Transit friendly legislators in Annapolis such as Baltimore's Brooke Lierman (Sponsor of the farebox recovery repeal and the transportation scoring bills) and Robby Lewis are waiting for additional ideas that can be turned into policies in the State. A Governor with a specific focus on being business friendly can hardly ignore how important a well functioning transit system is for business and employees alike.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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