Monday, March 27, 2017

New voices in transportation advocacy

There were the days when Baltimore's transit advocates could be counted on one hand: the legendary Ed Cohen of the Baltimore Transit Ridership Action Council (TRAC),  Bob Reuter, (Light Rail Now) transit expert and advocate for accessibility issues who's presence was indicated by his hippie painted VW micro bus with a canoe atop and Art Cohen of Bmore Mobile, a veteran of the Baltimore freeway struggles.
New group, new logo
Baltimore's transit Einstein: Ed Cohen

Those were the stalwarts who would show up for any hearing on planned transit, the advocates would always be the same, as in an old family re-union, and they were all white old men. They would be feared by the transit agency for their tireless presence and their expertise on all details of transit, but never gained much political clout.

Sure, acting on the insight that transportation policy change would require a larger field of operation the GBC had a transportation committee that eventually became the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, the 1000 Friends of Maryland spoke out for transit as part of their smart growth strategies and there was the Transit Union ATU. The biggest success was the Baltimore Rail Plan of 2002 in large part a result of GBC's intervention. After the Baltimore Red Line had been in the works for about a decade, there was even a Red Line Now group that got some traction. But it became clear that all the advocacy was still so weak that the Governor could simply toss the crown jewel of the transit plan, the $3 billion Red Line aside like an old sock. The need for new approach became obvious.
Coalition building

The first fresh approach to transit advocacy came form Transit Choices, a group led by developer Jim Rouse's son Jimmy Rouse which emerged from his original push for streetcars on Charles Street, an effort that also found an inglorious end when the Mayor declared that she had zero interest in augmenting the free City bus shuttle with streetcars, no matter where.  Rouse realized that to get Baltimore out of its transportation complacency, a broader coalition was needed. His group Transit Choices began to address all modes at once, including bicycles and water taxis and connect the question of transportation with the questions of equity and economic development. How could Baltimore attract the sought after young creatives, new employers or bring Sandtown out of poverty, if advocacy was mode specific or focused singularly on technical issues? With a system consisting of workgroups, interesting public presentations and meetings with transit officials Rouse attracted a more diverse group that included innovators such as Jill Sorensen and equity advocates such as Glenn Smith and many younger folks interested in less stodgy transit. Transit Choices continues to successfully bring together transit providers, users, employers and community representatives and has become a voice heard by the MTA, City Hall and even the Governor's office. But it hadn't had the power to prevent the demise of Baltimore's largest public works project ever, in part since the large coalition was not uniformly convince about the project. So it came that the Governor himself pointed out that advocacy for the Washington area Purple Line had been much better than for the Red Line. That project is still alive while the Red Line is either dead or at least deep frozen.

The demise of the Red Line brought the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition (BTEC) to life which formed to challenge MDOT on the grounds that taking the project off the table constitutes a social justice violation under Title VI of the civil rights laws. The group is guided by social justice advocate Samuel Jordan and Reverend Glenn Smith and also includes civil rights advocate and veteran transit advocate Bob Reuter.

The challenge to ramp up Baltimore's advocacy remained, especially for the larger region. Although GBC's now independent CMTA was all along oriented on the regional context, it had to ask how it could survive and could become more effective after Hogan's move had proven that he didn't have to be afraid of Baltimore transit advocates, even where it included non-profits and the business community.  As a result CMTA reached out to revive some regional ties that weren't exactly brand-new, For example the 2013 "Get Maryland Moving" group which had fallen dormant and was a subset of the Coalition for Smarter Growth which includes Maryland, DC and Northern Virginia. On the regional scene is also the still active Action Committee for Transit. The advocacy scene changes and in some ways remains the same (see also my earlier article).

The new Get Maryland Moving coalition added new powerhouses such as Sagamore and Tradepoint Atlantic and equity oriented partners such as BTEC and the Coppin State University CDC. CMTA, 1KF signed on as established transit advocates. In this new formation the group took it as its first assignment to advocate for the repeal of a Maryland law that requires that 35% of MTA's operating cost must be recovered by revenues from the "farebox". A repeal bill originally submitted in 2016 had failed in Annapolis. The MTA hasn't met this requirement in years but the number prevents the agency from serious investments which would create an even larger gap, even if it were only temporarily.

The result of a new and broader push for the repeal is promising. The bill sponsored by Delegate Lierman and Senator Madaleno passed HB271 made it out of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and passed second reader on the Senate floor Friday.  the third reader providing a fully passed bill heading to the Governor’s desk will occur either Monday or Tuesday tomorrow morning. It is unclear whether the Governor would veto the repeal.

The Get Maryland Moving coalition will soon convene to discuss on how to build on the success and further advocate for better transportation in the region. A look at transportation in the Northern Virginia/DC/Baltimore mega-region is urgently needed as the area is pretty close to becoming North America's most congested region, certainly not a recipe for success.
Farebox revenues: repeal of a mandate

Transit advocacy which addresses the issues of many diverse groups of constituents in innovative and largely non ideological manners brings unlikely bedfellows.  The reality of transportation in the region affects the working and unemployed poor, millenials, businesses and innovators in many different ways, but there is a common base on which all can agree: Better transit is the gateway to prosperity and opportunity and poor transportation holds the region back.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Several inaccuracies were corrected. The Farebox repeal bill has since passed the Senate in third reader and the House in second .The author is a transit planner and member of the 1000 Friends of MD, Transit Choices and of Get Maryland Moving.

ATU letter to the SUN on Farebox recovery

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