Monday, March 5, 2018

The choke-holds on Baltimore transportation

Just when it became clear to every transportation expert that metro areas can't build themselves out of congestion, just when it became globally obvious that we live in the age of metro areas and just when transportation had been identified as a key indicator for equity and social justice the forces of the current administration in Washington have aligned themselves to deliver a big blow to public transportation across the nation.  In Baltimore the blow is augmented on the State and local level:
  • The US President talks about infrastructure but proposes massive cuts to his Department of Transportation and to transit in particular
  • The State of Maryland doubles down on its blatantly lopsided highways-first anti-transit policies
  • The City of Baltimore fails to provide the transportation leadership necessary to counter the hostile external policies
    cars, cars, cars
Let's parse these choke-holds out, one by one:

The Federal Government: 

In the President's budget proposal TIGER grants, a major discretionary transit funding program is proposed to be eliminated. The competitive grants have funded 421 community based road, transit and active transportation efforts with $5.1 billion since its inception in 2009. Baltimore received TIGER funds for North Avenue Rising, an ongoing corridor improvement project,
The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program, provides a unique opportunity for the DOT to invest in road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve national objectives. Since 2009, Congress has dedicated nearly $5.1 billion for eight rounds of TIGER to fund projects that have a significant impact on the Nation, a region or a metropolitan area. (US DOT website)
Baltimore's transit advocacy group Transit Choices collected 175 signatures supporting the TIGER program and delivered them Maryland's legislators in Washington.
Baltimore's Red Line, aborted in the last minute

Further it is proposed to “wind down” a major source of transit funding, the Capital Investment Grants program, eliminating all projects that don't already have funding agreements in place. Instead, the transit projects are supposed to fund themselves through "value capture", a measure that is hampered by the fact that transit agencies typically have zero control over land use which typically is the roam of the "added value" to be "captured".

The grandiose announcement of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan is a paper tiger if one considers that only $200 billion over ten years was proposed as actual federal spending. The rest of the money would have to come from private sources through the Public Private Partnerships (P3) which are often proposed to reduce up front capital engagement by the government. What is usually forgotten is that those private  moneys come with a hefty price tag and that they are essentially mortgages and have to be paid back either by users of the project through user fees such as fares or tolls or by the taxpayer in general or in some combination of the two. Congress and the federal government continue to refuse to adjust the federal fuel tax to inflation. Keeping the federal tax constant has meant that actual funds in today's dollars have become less every year since 1994 when the fuel tax was last adjusted. A truly non sustainable situation.

The State of Maryland:

Based on gasoline tax increases and indexing enacted under the previous Governor money influx into the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund has grown. However, the Governor and his Secretary of Transportation have refused to maintain the transit funding levels to which his predecessor had committed.
Baltimore's light rail: No expansion in 25 years

As a result the State funds for the Purple Line were slashed to less than a quarter what they had been,  the Red Line was cancelled, the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) was put on hold, no money was put aside to implement the MARC masterplan. The money is getting spent on roadways instead, including additional beltway toll lanes. The city of Baltimore had to trade the $2.9 billion Red Line for a $135 million over 5 year investment into the existing bus system.  The Governor's assertion that he is spending plenty of money on transit for new railcars on Metro, track repairs and the midlife overhaul for light tail overlooks the fact that these expenditures were all planned and funded before Hogan came into office.
Baltimore bikeshare program: On and off

Whatever transit funds MDOT will muster, they will likely go to DC to meet WMATA's insatiable needs for repair and maintenance. Baltimore remains ill positioned to throw its own weight for better balance.

The City of Baltimore

Chronically suffering from a shrinking tax base from a shrinking population Baltimore City had a fairly small piece of skin in the Red Line and contributes little to current TIGER projects such as North Avenue Rising. When Baltimore created the Circulator in 2010 and shortly thereafter began funding free commuter water taxi service, it had started its own self supporting transit  service which was an instant hit. However, service was soon expanded beyond what the main funding source, a special parking tax, could support. Since 2015 the City is promising to reform the Circulator and water taxi so they would remain  viable transit options without needing life support from the general fund. To this day, no convincing  reform has been worked out. The services are much less polished than they used to be and continue to drain the general fund.
Protected bike lanes: Lacking the will to actually build them

The highly touted overhaul of the first bike masterplan, which for the first time produced a complete bike network plan and implementation strategy, was reduced to not much more than ideas on paper when the implementation was halted amidst concerns about fire access which other cities have already successfully resolved.

Councilman Dorsey's complete streets legislation was hung up as well, it has no support from City DOT.

The new director of DOT in office since June 2017 first forgot to send  Baltimore's transportation priority letter to the State and then sent a most unconvincing document that showed that Baltimore doesn't really have clear transportation priorities. While the letter may have been a minor issue, the continued absence of a strong Baltimore position in Annapolis when it comes to fighting or compensating for Hogan's lopsided transportation is certainly more than unfortunate, especially at a time when the MTA shut down Metro because the system had fallen into such disrepair that it was apparently unsafe to run or when Baltimore should step up to make North Avenue Rising truly a project addressing transit access, economic development, equity and social justice. Neither the complete streets approach nor the accommodation of active transportation (pedestrian and bicycle) can wait until the new director completes her two laudable main goals, an "asset inventory" and a "comprehensive transportation plan".
"We have a lot of growth and we've got to do better. It's a real opportunity for the state to invest in Baltimore. State money spent on Baltimore now will make money for the state down the road. It's an opportunity we have to become a top-notch place and it's going to take a concerted effort in infrastructure and transportation." (Tom Prevas, member of the Planning Commission).
Baltimore is also a major bottleneck in East Coast freight and passenger service thanks to the ancient Howard Street tunnel preventing efficient doublestack container trains moving north from the Port of Baltimore, and the 150 year old B&P tunnel forcing trains on four tracks to merge onto two tracks crawling at 30mph. CSX withdraw from rebuilding the Howard Street tunnel and the B&P tunnel has a preferred option but no design and construction money.
Everywhere except in Baltimore


Even though the bus-only lanes and some signal modifications to give the bus more green time are nice,  they cannot suffice as Baltimore's transit future. Baltimore needs to forcefully invest in "complete streets", bicycle and pedestrian facilities, a better Circulator and water commuter system and demand additional investment into the bus system, especially to reinstate faster bus route overlays such as the popular Quick buses used to be.  Even more Baltimore needs a transportation concept for the future which includes rail expansion for Metro, Light rail and MARC, policies for the deployment of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), progressive parking policies and an aggressive strategy towards pedestrian and bicycle safety.
Baltimore Circulator: Popular but in need of a sustainable future plan

None of this would make Baltimore a leader in transportation. It would only allow the city to catch up with others. Or as Jed Weeks of Baltimore's Bikemore tweeted: "Seattle does in one year what takes us 10 and counting".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

updated for Howard Street and B&P tunnels.

Transit at top of wish list as city planners meet with State 

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