Monday, June 4, 2018

The candidates for Governor and Baltimore's transportation woes

There are quite a few indications that Baltimore's self professed transportation woes won't go away anytime soon:
  • Rail Plan: Consternation reigns ever since Governor Hogan took the Red Line off the table. No productive thinking about how to break out of the stand-still has emerged
  • Baltimore Link: Neither residents nor riders nor the MTA itself can quite decide whether the biggest bus overhaul in recent history was a success, a failure or just lipstick on a pig
  • Governor: No candidate for governor runs with an idea for Baltimore's transportation that is easy to remember. Hogan's additional Beltway HOT lanes almost look creative in that context
  • Baltimore City's DOT: The agency which would need to fill the void seems to lack transportation strategy as well. It can't even describe the purpose of its own Circulator bus correctly as the latest transportation priority letter proves
Baltimore transportation: Always a mess? 1960s
The only recent bright spots in the ongoing saga of the region's transportation woes were a coordinated push of Baltimore's legislators during the last legislative session for more money for MTA for a better state of repair and the legislated requirement for a new regional transportation plan. And, yes, the recent BC DOT breakthrough on the downtown bicycle network plan which had been on ice for years.

How desolate is the system really?  A look at APTA's annual transit handbook, in which systems are compared nationally, shows that the sheer amount of transit the Baltimore region has on the ground or the number of transit users across all modes makes Baltimore look good by comparison. While the City is #27 in size it ranks far higher in the in almost all transit metrics.
The 2017 APTA Transportation Fact Book shows:
  • MTA MD on rank 13 of the 50 largest Transit agencies in the country measured by "unlinked passenger miles", i.e. a fair metric showing how many people havve been moved how far without counting transfers. (with Baltimore City being somewhere on rank 27 of the 50 largest US cities). 
  • Baltimore on rank 11 for total unlinked trips and also by number of transit riders per capita. 
  • The MTA also has the 11th largest bus service (measured by passenger miles) 
  • the 5th largest commuter bus service 
  • the 7th largest mobility service in the country. 
  • The MTA's commuter rail service is #9 in the US. 
  • Only light rail sits in a low rank at #1
These quantitative facts obscure how well the service operates in terms of reliability, on time performance, length of trips or travel speeds. A report card compiled in 2017 by the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance CMTA) gives the area's transportation a mark for 12 metrics in which the best is a C+ for walkability and the worst is an F for disconnected communities, air pollution and job access by transit. The study states that 100% of the region's jobs can be accessed by car in one hour, but only 9% by transit. Those numbers did not yet reflect the reformed bus system and there were questions about CMTA's methodology.
Baltimore is #3 in this chart

Transit advocates and politicians alike give the region poor marks, for sure. However, frequently there is far more judgement than actual knowledge feeding into the complicated topic. There is practically no city in which residents love their transit agency. Even in Seattle, which recently has become a transit darling among experts, scorn and mockery had been heaped on the city for its transportation policies which appeared to pour resources in all kinds of modes at the same time.  Just remember Bertha the boring machine stuck in the mud? Yes, that was for a road project, but critics complained about how the city dug tunnels for cars and trains at the same time. How it had started with bus tunnels and then converted them to mixed bus-rail tunnel, how it had a lone streetcar line going nowhere, plus a lone monorail, plus a new LRT line that ran to the airport and had no development around its stops.  The litany of complaints was endless.  All this seems forgotten today thanks to Settle as a region getting its act together and implementing a transit first transportation policy that is praised in article after article
Baltimore transportation: Always a mess?(1940s)

How bad the local image of regional transit is was on full display during the gubernatorial issue forum on transportation last week organized by the Central Baltimore Transportation Alliance (CMTA), 1000 Friends of Maryland, Transit Choices, the Transportation Equity Coalition, Bikemore, CPHA and others. The incumbent governor and two of the leading contenders, Rushern Baker and Ben Jealous didn't even show up, nor did Valerie Ervin who stepped in for the late Kevin Kamenetz. That the Democratic challengers didn't seize the opportunity was surprising, given that transportation represents a major Achilles heel for the incumbent. Even Hogan supporters would concede that the Governors single minded focus on additional highway lanes looks too much like a playbook of the 1950s. On the other hand, State Democrats discovered their love for the Baltimore Red Line mostly after the line had become Hogan's victim.
Governor Hogan continues to focus on delivering much-needed transportation improvements by committing nearly $15 billion to the state’s Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP). This includes over $8 billion dedicated towards fixing roads and bridges. Additionally, more than 8,000 lane-miles - or more than one-third of the state’s highways - have been repaved. There are currently nearly 1,000 projects under construction across the state, totaling $9 billion. (Hogan website)
The transportation forum, moderated by local TV anchor Jayne Miller of WBAL-TV, had depth, propagated sound transportation principles and, unsurprisingly, was deeply critical of  Hogan's policies; but it lacked compelling ideas and did little to differentiate the candidates from each other. Everyone wants to bring the Red Line back, a position first taken by Rushern Baker, but unsupported by any specifics about how this could be achieved. There were plenty of slogans instead. 
An advanced society isn't where the poor drive cars but where the rich ride transit (Janette Sadik Khan, former NYC Transportation Commissioner, quoted by Eric Ross) 
Rich Madaleno, who out-talked everyone else on the podium, spoke eloquently about the Purple Line being "paid via credit card" by letting a private consortium design, build, operate and maintain the Washington area light rail project to be paid back by tax dollars "with a premium". Which sounded like he was critical about it, but then Madaleno allowed that the P3 approach "forces us to pay for maintenance" and that appeared to be a good thing for him. He didn't explain whether he would use the P3 model for a Red Line rebirth or not. Jim Shea, as a former board chair of CMTA probably the most versed in Baltimore transportation details, constantly referred to the need of "a statewide plan" and pointed repeatedly to his 30-page website plan, yet it remains unclear what the major element of his plan would be even after reading the 30 pages.

All panelists considered Hogan's transportation approach a failure and all could describe the problems well. But none had any specifics for actual solutions.  Rushern Baker's website which lists five short paragraphs under "infrastructure" states
We need 21st-century solutions to our transit problems that will not only connect more people to jobs and take more cars off the road but projects that will spur economic development in the communities they serve. (Baker website)  
That about sums it up in terms of vagueness. I suppose not even Larry Hogan would disagree. One couldn't be sure that any of the candidates at the forum had recently used transit, except if one accepts Jim Shea's trip of 2017 as recent, in which he tested Baltimore Link with a ride from Sandtown to the Amazon distribution center. Alec Ross talked about his years of taking the MARC train every day to DC when he worked for Hillary Clinton and about how hard it is for his son's classmates, to reach Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute Highschool from across town. Krish Vignarajah had to resort to her father as a transit user to express her authentic relation to transit.  Her website, though, shows a family photo with a very young Krish standing on the rear bumper of a mighty station wagon. Fringe candidate Ralph Jaffe admitted that he had no clue about transportation ("my focus is on education") but still had to throw in the unfounded assertion that buses are not safe and that they each needed a safety officer to ride along.

All talked about better connecting people with jobs, also the express purpose of MTA's Link bus reform. When perennial transit gadfly Ed Cohen who has an encyclopedic knowledge of transit asked the candidates what specifically they would suggest to be different for Link bus if they had control over the MTA bus system, the faces of the candidates expressed panic. No-one seemed to have any real knowledge about the Link system, having this in common with many who condemn the MTA bus service wholesale but never use it. Jim Shea as the former board chair of CMTA recovered first, remembering how the organization had peer-reviewed and modeled  a draft version of Link Bus and found that on average it didn't improve trip times to jobs. But those models are extremely complex and MTA had taken issue with how CMTA's model worked and CMTA has since taken issue with MTA's claims of how much better the system performs compared to its predecessor. The confusion leads to the impasse in which nobody dares to call the reform a success, but nobody wants to call it a failure just yet, either.

It isn't clear if any of the candidates had ever sat down with MTA administrator Kevin Quinn or with MTA Director of Service Development Tom Hewitt to gain additional insights. Since MTA is not only a Baltimore transit company but responsible for transit around the State, such a conversation would seem highly pertinent for anyone who wants to be governor.

Mr. Ross proclaimed that someone's budget reflects someone's values and pointed to Hogan's lopsided roadway expenditures as proof. He would just flip those priorities and give the majority of the money to transit. Krish Vignarajah spoke eloquently about the land use and transportation nexus and the need to stop moving jobs further and further out. Jane Miller brought the issue of land use to the point when she asked if any of the candidates would block a job development that wasn't planned near existing transit. This question, too brought some fear to the faces of the contestants, given that local land use control is a sacred cow and one of the major sticks that Republicans use to beat up Democrats who supposedly are out to undermine that local privilege.  Only Ms. Vignarajah said she would do so, Mr Madaleno clearly refused such an intervention, Mrs Shea and Ross had some conditional answers that noted incentives and Mr Jaffe mumbled something about volunteerism.

An audience member complained about the many bus shuttles running parallel to MTA's bus routes and Jayne Miller converted this to another pointed question: As Governor, would the candidates ask the institutions to stop those services? Another opportunity for the candidates to differentiate themselves, but again they shied away from looking fierce. Ross recovered by declaring that the many shuttles are a sign of government's failure to provide good transit. A point that is debatable, especially along Baltimore's Charles Street where MTA and Circulator run all the way up to the Johns Hopkins campus. More likely,  the real root for the proliferation of those services is elitism and the fear of parents that their offspring could sit in a bus with regular people. Ms. Vignarajah observed,
How any jobs of the region (large circle) can be reached within
60 minutes (small circle)
based on her studies in biology, that such alternatives "make the original system atrophy". In many ways she seemed to be the most fearless except at one point when Alec Ross became extremely clear and poignant. "I have heard many dumb ideas [in my campaign around the State], but the dumbest idea of all I heard from Baltimore's City Council President Jack Young", he said while the audience hushed. "He suggested that one should pay for bicycle parking. My friends around the country ask me, what is wrong with your city"? Indeed, in a hearing about leasing out two city garages, Young uttered such words at the very end of the hearing.

The near future of autonomous cars wasn't a topic at all, no candidate brought it up and no audience member asked about it. Madaleno made some attempts of describing a more nimble transit system of the future that should be more responsive "like Uber and Lyft"; to which Ross responded that he sees the problem in too much privatization of services that belong to the "commons", such as transit.

Success, failure or much to do about nothing?
Mr Madaleno mentioned several times that Baltimore is the only city in Maryland which has to take care of all the roads including State Roads and Interstates which are kept up by the State outside the city limits. Of course, the State provides payments for upkeep under a complicated formula which obviously doesn't allow for the type of maintenance necessary. This years's City priority letter once again asks for restoring the full Highway User Fee payments. There was some laughter among the gubernatorial candidates and the audience when someone mentioned that the Mayor could ask for those roads to be deeded back to the State. It wasn't clear if, as governor, they would accept such an overture.

All candidates agreed that not only Maryland's economic future is in jeopardy when transportation remains a stepchild and congestion on record levels, they also agreed with Ms Vignarajah contention that transportation is a major equity issue.  In the candidates' campaign programs, though, transportation only gets a few general statements and even Mr. Shea's 30 page program is big on describing the problems and thin on solutions.

Here a few simple ideas for the candidates to pick from:

  • a single ticket for all systems and modes in the entire region
  • no more cash payments on buses and multi-door boarding
  • an all out effort of putting intense land use around every single rail station in Maryland
  • an all out effort making Baltimore's Metro and Light Rail first class transit services
  • fully funding the MARC commuter rail plan which MDOT has on the books but which is languishing
  • bringing the Quickbus back to Baltimore's bus system as a quicker alternative on the most traveled routes
  • realizing the community development plans created as part of the Red Line planning process
  • creating an urban pilot policy for autonomous vehicles
  • creating a test for driverless potentially demand-based buses in a small Maryland City such as Salisbury
  • declaring Maglev and Hyperloop as the gimmicks that they are
  • agree on a few mandated simple transportation metrics which are made public each day and show congestion levels, mode split, air pollution, transit on-time performance, transit ridership and speeds compared to reasonable target metrics based on metro areas we envy. 
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

(The forum was recorded by the Real News Network and can be watched on  here).

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