Friday, May 15, 2020

Baltimore in 2021

Mass unemployment, city services curtailed, trash piling up in parks and alleys, crime remaining sky high, empty storefronts everywhere, bursts of social unrest, and a downtown full of panhandlers but devoid of office workers. The promised COVID vaccine approved, but in short supply and only available in States with staunch supporters of the re-elected president. Is that the Baltimore of 2021?

Or a Baltimore boosted by a federal Marshall Plan for cities, initiated by a new President and approved by Congress, and skillfully employed on the local level by an energetic new Mayor and Council, both also responsible for the efficient and fast distribution of the new COVID vaccine which gives people confidence to go out and about again?

Both futures seem possible. Peering into the future has become far more difficult under the regime of SARS-CoV2, especially now after it became clear that things won't be back to normal any time soon.

Many predictions about the future of cities are dire. More so, when the city is Baltimore. The Atlantic diagnosed "A Make or Break Moment for Cities" and predicted nothing less than "a reversal of the urban renaissance":
Empty JFX during Corona: The end of cities?
The possible result is nothing less than the reversal of the “urban renaissance” that began roughly a generation ago. Renaissance is a freighted term, to be sure, and it elides as much as it describes, but some aspects of it are unarguable. After nearly four decades of capital flight, investment returned to neighborhoods that had been dismissed as unsalvageable. And so did people. In the 2000 census, Chicago posted its first population growth in 50 years; in 2010, Philadelphia did the same. Most spectacularly, New York City, which lost more than 800,000 residents during the 1970s, has welcomed an astonishing 1.4 million people since.
On first blush it would appear plausible that the time of cities is over and suburbs are in again, if density, public transit, crowded bars, museums, concerts and sports events are out, and distance, open space, and working from home is in.
Cities are broke, office districts dormant, services cut to the bone. And wealthy white families will, in some number, move to the suburbs, sapping City Hall’s coffers when they go. Metropolises may get the gridlocked ’50s and the bankrupt ’70s all in six months. (Slate)
The truth won't be quite as simple. Too often before have cities been declared dead and wound up to be better than ever before. Many cities overseas don't even ponder such dark thoughts but are gearing up for a gradual recovery. Closer to home, that the suburb isn't necessarily the victor  is illustrated by the fact that Baltimore County has been hit just as hard as Baltimore City and that shiny Montgomery County is even worse off.
How hard will Baltimore City get hit? How tough will it be for the next mayor to get the city to open up again and get the books in order when income is braking off on so many fronts at once?

Too many City neighborhoods, spaces, businesses and start-ups in Baltimore always operated on the brink, even in better times. Too many people without work, too many failing schools, too much crime and also corruption. The large "black butterfly" areas of east and west Baltimore are known for their huge disparities in job access, health, homeownership, poverty levels and educational attainment. But clinging on for bare life also occurs in the "white L." Consider the problems of the  Hilton Hotel to make a profit as a convention center hotel, the almost vacant pavilions at the Inner Harbor or the difficulties of the Baltimore Symphony, all testimony that Baltimore seems to be a city that is always on the cusp, even in boom times when other cities created sound cushions of resilience. Baltimore is always on the verge of a renaissance but never quite able to really get there. Now, when the going gets really bad worldwide, what will the global recession do to our city?
Do people like to work from home?

Baltimore tracked the trajectory of other post industrial cities, pivoting from smoke stacks to services, especially in education and medicine. Like successful cities, Baltimore invested on becoming a place of experience that attracts conventioneers, suburbanites and tourists alike. We have our occasional stars, rising like comets, Mr Paterakis, the baker, Mr Becker of Sylvan Learning, Mr Plank of Under Armor. But only Paterakis really had staying power and his company is still a power house and a job center. But overall, "made in Baltimore" has become more a slogan than a reality. The reputation of economic heroes isn't good in Baltimore. Maybe the future belongs to small, local “makers” again. OpenWorks crowd source mass production of face shields was a great start.

What made Baltimore attractive in recent decades was its quirkiness, its restaurant and food scene, its arts and music scene, its festivals, the ethnically diverse population, the rich architecture and the long history. Plus the Orioles and Ravens, of course. All of it gave Baltimore the authenticity that attracted young people to come to town, in spite of the many shortcomings. It also allowed people of different ethnic backgrounds to feel at home here, even when the city was far from providing any type of equity. But everything that relies on gathering of large groups of people, chance encounters and the bustle of a vibrant city is now the opposite of what distancing demands.


Looking at those areas of strength, they are all in peril, but nothing more than the restaurants. Probably nothing has offered Baltimore more urban flair than the many restaurants that have sprung up in all corners of the City, ranging from basic successors of corner speakeasies to hidden secrets which were written up in the most renowned national foodie magazines. Imagine boarded windows at all the places where lively restaurants once stood, and one can instantly imagine the loss. A wonderful example of how restaurants transformed a once desolate block is the block where the Charles art-house movie theater sits. Now there are no movies and no diners withstanding heat or cold at those outdoor tables.
Masked and waiting for curbside pick-up

With the prospect of not being able to reopen to full capacity for a long time to come, local restaurants, food spots, bars and hangouts are the hardest hit segment of all small business enterprises. City Cafe has already announced its demise after a 26 year run.
"In a lot of ways, our problems in the restaurant business are only just beginning," he said. "When you reopen and you have mandated capacity at 50% or less, and you also are dealing with the public's general fear of coming out, the restaurants are going to be breaking even and after all this time you need to be turning a profit." (Gino Cardinale to the BBJ)
The much liked space was once before near the breaking point, when one of its founding partners was murdered on Baltimore's rough streets in 2001. Joe Square in Station North is rumored to be next. The Alexander Brown restaurant on Redwood Street closed as well. The BBJ reported:
The pandemic spelled the end for the high-end restaurant in the heart of downtown Baltimore, which opened 15 months ago in a historic building that was once home to investment bank Alex. Brown & Sons. But even before the outbreak, the Alexander Brown suffered from a location with few visitors, little residential traffic and a challenging parking situation, partner Blake Casper said in an interview Friday. The pandemic spelled the end for the high-end restaurant in the heart of downtown Baltimore, which opened 15 months ago in a historic building that was once home to investment bank Alex. Brown & Sons. But even before the outbreak, the Alexander Brown suffered from a location with few visitors, little residential traffic and a challenging parking situation, partner Blake Casper said in an interview Friday. (BBJ)
The list will certainly grow, considering that restaurants have struggled since the unrest of 2015 to gain customers back. There were too many restaurants competing over a too limited base of guests. Just ask Steven Rivelis how hard it was to keep the Elephant on Charles Street going until he couldn't hold on to it any longer. This was quite a while before COVID. Or ask the restaurants which have tried to make it work in Baltimore's Westside around the Hippodrome and the Everyman Theater. It has been a struggle and several failed there over the years. How can they survive now with the event venues shuttered indefinitely and the lunchtime crowd even thinner than it has been before. Or think of the food halls such as R-House and Mount Vernon Market which were conceived as heavens for restaurant start-ups. Or the new Broadway Market, how will it survive without tourists? All of Fells Point, really?


Baltimore's Symphony Orchestra was legendary. As recently as in 2018 it performed a concert devoted to the American composer Leonard Bernstein at the world famous Royal Albert Hall in London. But as everybody knows. the BSO was on the brink of disappearance before the virus hit and little has been heard since then. The Meyerhoff symphony hall  is large, it isn't always fully sold out and coughing is laways unwelcome there. Maybe it can open with social distancing rules in place. In 2021 Marin Alsop will step down as music director. The BSO may not find a new director in its current condition. But small clubs, music bars and venues that thrive on the vibe of a crowded small space won't open any time soon. Artscape is unlikely to happen, nor any of the parades and festivals that make Baltimore so special. (For a detailed report on how cultural institutions are hit, see this SUN article).
Councilman Pinkett handing out masks in
West Baltimore (Photo: Philipsen)


For decades Baltimore has suffered from large corporations being bought out and moving their headquarters to other cities. Additionally new office locations close to the water at Hrabor East or Harbor Point have cannibalized demand in downtown. in the age of cloud files and virtual meetings the  office itself has experienced a transformation, generally with a reduced demand for space per person. The pandemic will likely accelerate the trends away from one person=one cubicle. Social distancing will require that half the staff continues to work from home to reduce crowing in lobbies, elevators and office floors. As result Baltimore will see even fewer people in the streets and places that rely on office workers buying things or eating lunch out will suffer. Parking garages will remain half empty and the city parking tax revenue will shrink along with the fines from illegal parking.  It is unlikely that any shovel will go into the ground for new office buildings any time soon.


Baltimore's streets won't stay as empty as it was at the height of the lockdown, but the need for distance will require a new distribution of space. In part that may match up with the "complete streets" agenda of those who always wanted to give pedestrians and bicycles more space. But the push for increased transit usage has become much more difficult. It is way easier to keep distant in a car than in a bus or train. As a result, the existing inequities in mobility will become even worse. Corona has already illustrated the injustice of essential workers being forced into crowded buses while the more privileged can work from home but have a car in the driveway, just in case. There is no easy solution for safe transit travel in a pandemic. likely the bias Maryland's governor has for highways will further marginalize transit.


A battle about education funding is already brewing after the governor vetoed the Kirwin funding bill. Baltimore is more than anyone else in Maryland dependent on improved education as a tool to improve the chances of Baltimore's youth. In the City youth needs transit to get to school, making the question of how schools can be safely operated even more difficult. Children of families with a low emphasis on education which frequently are poor have suffered the most from the closed schools. As in so many areas, the virus is exacerbating the existing disparities and that will continue to reverberate, even when schools begin to operate normally again.
Operation Cease Fire: No less killing in the pandemic

Development and demographics

In the mayoral debates there is agreement that Baltimore has to stop the shrinkage of its population. But our mayoral candidates differ in what solution they suggest: Attracting new residents (Miller, Vignarajah) or  by keeping existing residents here (Dixon). This isn't just a mathematical game, the two approaches of stabilizing the size of the city require different sets of action, even if in reality, whoever gets elected, will probably employ some kind of mixed strategy, partly attracting new residents and partly keeping existing ones. The already noted Atlantic article observes correctly:
The first, if not most obvious, item on such a list would be to expand immigration and refugee resettlement. American cities have rarely expanded as a result of “natural” population growth. The number of people who leave cities has usually eclipsed the number born in them. In other words, cities have always relied on newcomers to maintain their vitality. That was true a century ago, and it remains true today. As scholars have now documented, before the hipsters and kale chips and artisanal beer arrived in American cities, immigrants played a central role in the urban renaissance of the past generation.
In spite of the vast amounts of vacant houses, there remains a shortage of affordable quality housing. Most economists agree, that multi-familiy housing will continue to see demand and financing, especially if it is affordable. Just like during the financial crisis, many projects in the pipeline may pivot from upscale to affordable, desirable from a needs perspective but not as good for the city's tax base.  Big fancy projects such as Port Covington will likely slow even further than they already did before COVID hit. Large redevelopment areas such as the Uplands had been stalled for decades, the new economic crisis will make their completion even less likely.

Fiscal health

US cities, especially former industrial legacy cities have suffered from a lack of money for decades resulting in shortchanged maintenance of schools, pipes, roads and transit. This will become much worse when so much revenue has broken off from a economy running in some kind of suspense. Cities can't pull themselves out on their bootstraps. They do need a big federal bail-out much more urgently than airlines or the auto industry. Or better, they should have a higher priority, because there can't be a healthy America when half of its cities are bankrupt. Funding cities to recover requires a different mindset in the White House, to say the least. In the end, bringing cities back to life and prosperity has no alternative, especially if one considers climate change and the fact that cities have a much smaller carbon footprint than suburbs. To quote the Atlantic once more:
One can imagine that the COVID-19 pandemic will leave a cityscape of closed businesses and empty storefronts and people who can no longer afford housing. Federal intervention could help ensure that large corporations and real-estate conglomerates don’t swoop in to fill every available void. In fact, the pandemic presents an opportunity to rewrite banking policies so that they reward small rather than big, and to initiate housing programs that expand opportunities for working- and middle-class people, reversing some of the trends that have made it harder for people to afford the neighborhoods they live in.
I would add that the country needs to levy a Corona solidarity tax for those who earn over a certain level of income and can easily afford such a contribution.

The rays of hope

Popular believe has it that there is always opportunity in crisis. We will see. It could be that Made in the USA or Made in Baltimore will get a boost from the insight that supply chains become a problem when they get too complicated. Urban farming, farmers markets and non-meat food options could see stronger demand, Baltimore with its many fallow lands could build its already strong leadership in the arena further out.

It could be that people having been conditioned to the 6' distance will yearn for urbanity, density and proximity once the threat of this virus has subsided and that bars, shared office spaces and food halls will thrive again along with ethnic festivals and crowded sports arenas. The trend towards outdoor dining will become stronger, because managing aersols there will be much easier than with indoor AC.

It could be that loyalty to local businesses gains strength and that it is the big chains which cannot withstand the pressure of several months without income while small owners power through it. JC Penny went bust, department stores have had a hard time for a while. It could be that the slow lock-down period with some of the introspection that came with it, has built up a strong demand for art and cultural expression so that galleries, museums and will thrive.

It could be that Tourism will shun cruise ships and far-flung places for a while in favor of a weekend in an interesting city.

COVID has brought into sharp focus what doesn't work in America and in Maryland. It is a great time that Baltimore finally claims the leading role it needs to play in this state. We shouldn't vote for a Mayor who is satisfied with anything less than that. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also on my blog:

Friday, May 8, 2020

How COVID 19 stresses transit riders and the MTA alike

Rarely come the breaking points of a society into as sharp a focus as in the current pandemic. Far from being the  equal opportunity threat to everyone one might superficially consider a virus against which all humans are unprotected, COVID 19 hits the most vulnerable especially hard. Transit is like a magnifying glass for this condition.
MTA bus operator with mask. (Photo: MTA)

On a transit bus what is good for the health of essential employees riding the bus to work is not necessarily good for bus operators. The health of the homeless using the bus for shelter adds another layer of complexity.

The passengers: Being a bus riders is never all that much fun, what with buses being late, not showing up at all or breaking down en route? In the pandemic all of that happens more frequently, especially when the entire Eastern Bus "division' had to temporarily shut down because COVID had been detected in the facility. Fewer buses, fewer drivers (Absent due to quarantining), less seating, and longer commute times where the result, adding insult to injury for essential front line workers riding to their job in hospitals, nursing homes, government offices, construction sites or grocery stores who have to go to work during a pandemic.
Public transportation agencies are playing a critical role during the COVID-19 pandemic response, and they will continue to do so as we navigate the road to economic and social recovery throughout our nation. Public transit agencies have worked tirelessly to provide bus and rail service so that essential workers can get to hospitals, pharmacies, and grocery stores during the COVID-19 emergency, underscoring how essential it is to keep public transit running. (APTA Brochure)
"Essential Travel Only" (Photo: Philipsen) 
Being an operator is never an easy job, but it, too got harder in the pandemic when initially drivers got in close contact with everyone boarding the bus through the front door. Many got infected and several even died in the pursuit of this vital front line work. Rear door boarding was implemented to protect drivers but leaves regular bus riders on their own in the back.

Lastly, the homeless have long become a familiar sight on transit. Everyone using the subway in a major city knows the folks performing, begging or holding speeches on the trains.  In the pandemic being homeless is extra hard, in Baltimore where there is only one subway line, riding the bus becomes inviting, especially right now when rear door boarding has eliminated the ticket check by the operator.

In short, in the time of the pandemic, transit, always an explosive topic, has become an even more volatile topic. Below a few notes from drivers and riders posted on the Baltimore Transit Facebook page:
So the red 3666 decided to not stop at university hospital because the driver saw the homeless ppl and didn’t stop but the driver left ppl who really needed that bus
And now I'm sitting here for another 34 min waiting for another Bus. Its so frustrating 
I’m telling you they have the buses on a Saturday schedule which means less buses and they will be crowded because those MF’S won’t stay in the house and just let essential people ride. Once it’s a few people standing up that social distancing kicks in and the bus won’t stop. I’m sorry you’re going through that but until everything goes back to normal this will continue to happen 
everyday last week I had a run that I was suppose to get relieved on out of 5 days I got a relief on 1 day. 2 of the 5 days I pulled the bus in to the yard. The other 2 days I just stayed out and did another round trip by that time it was 10:00pm and was time for me to go home. Everyone is doing something diffrent everyday most of us don't have a set schedule
short staffed a lot are still out quarantined. I just don’t understand why they would do a Saturday schedule when all the methodone clinics are still open and they are crowding the buses meanwhile real essential employees can’t get on, it’s pathetic
Masks required on transit in every state
Better off folks sheltering at home may wonder why the buses are even operating in a time of social distancing. Indeed, transit ridership has gone down between 60-80% across systems all across the nation. Still, the question why transit at all overlooks the facts on the ground in Baltimore and most metro areas: How about this: Those staying home benefit from the many workers that go to work every day, no matter how much some jobs put them at risk. or this: Baltimore is a city where in some large neighborhoods more than half of the households have no car. Those workers have no other way to commute than the bus, and residents without a car have no other way to get necessities. In short, transit remains a vital lifeline, "Stay at Home" orders or not.

After initially running the full schedule the MTA responded to reduced ridership by thinning out service to Saturday service levels, no matter that the remaining riders needed to adhere to workday work hours. Seeing congestion, the MTA added more runs to the Saturday schedule on heavily frequented routes. MTA currently collects hardly any fares, so whatever operations add to the deficit that all transit agencies have anyway. The BBJ reported that MTA will receive $385 million federal COVID funds. The BBJ stated that MTA's total 2019 operating bugdet was $881 million.  The extra money may help for a bit, but with a huge backlog in repairs and reduced income from the transportation trust fund, MTA's financial future is in jeopardy, no matter how thin the current service.
Homeless on a MTA bus

Operators and riders dread the thinned schedule: Small crowds of workers, the down and out and the "invincibles who don't care about masks or take them off once inside the bus. They all greet the drivers at bus stops sometimes forcing operators to pass without stopping or do jump out of their seats to call for order in the back of the bus.  Some drivers call all non essential riders "joy riders", a term that doesn't sit well with homeless advocates.

The transit conundrum under COVID is coming to a head in many cities across the world, but it is particularly acute where poverty and homelessness are exceptionally high, as in Baltimore. Tension between a driver and an irate passenger in once instance escalated into an operator being shot in the early days of COVID operations.
 Some bus drivers let ppl get on without a mask!!! And dont say nothin to them at all. (Baltimore Transit)
Seriously does any of the MTA Top Officials ride the Bus . You cant tell me that you trying to keep your Operators or Riders safe😣. First we had to wait for the Blue. And we didnt even made it down to Eastern Avenue leaving Bayview and the Bus was allready crowded. I think its a Slap in the Face for everybody who risking there Life's rightnow and can't get to Work or can't get Home. And on Top of it I'm Shoulder to Shoulder with other People.And no I'm not blaming the Operators . They have to breathe the same Air than we do. Sorry I had to vent. (Baltimore Transit Facebook page)
There is no easy answer. Pre-existing problems won't be solved in a pandemic, more likely they become bigger and more pronounced. MTA had to quarantine drivers and shut down entire "divisions" (the garages from where the buses get dispatched) but is now back to running all garages. Many solutions that may work elsewhere will exacerbate fault lines that have been in place in Baltimore for a long time.

  • Police action, for example: Should the police clear out the homeless from subways and buses as New York City began to do? The MTA has their own police force. But wouldn't this just heighten the distrust and smack of the old policing tactics that targeted poor black men in particular?
  • Or identification of essential workers via an app like it is done in China. Should the State issue "essential Worker IDs" that would have to be checked by MTA staff at bus stops or in the bus? Wouldn't that disadvantage those without smart phones in a time when the issuance of physical cards would be impossible? And what about other users who go shopping or to see a doctor?
  • Should essential workers simply accept the heightened risk that comes from crowding and unhygienic conditions on the bus and live with prolonged commute times? Isn't that the problem to begin with, namely that our transit commute times are too long and the buses to unreliable?
  • Should the MTA send more buses out until everyone who wants to ride can find a safe distance to other riders? That would be an obvious solution if the MTA would have endless funding or enough drivers ready to roll, even when sick leave began to rise, in part due to COVID?
  • Should front doors be re-opened but cash transactions be eliminated so no interaction with the driver is needed? For that the driver enclosure would have to be extended to provide better protection, a costly undertaking keeping even more buses out of circulation?
Sooo. I'm on my way to work. On the bus. The bus line is running on. SATURDAY schedule. But...ALL the people going to work are on their regular schedule.meaning we still have to be at work on a weekday schedule dozens of passengers are cramped on a bus. With NOOOO. Possible choice to social distance. My second bus doesnt run for another hour. (Baltimore Transit Facebook page)
None of these solutions seem to be particularly practical or convincing. Maybe a combination of some of these may work, especially considering that solutions will be needed for some time to come.

Whatever is done, some will see it as an extension of the inequity already permeating society and of the unfair practices of enforcing laws on the back of those who are already vulnerable. But sometimes one needs to think outside the box:

A creative suggestion regarding the homeless came from a bus operator: He proposed the MTA should run a few of the articulated longer buses along routes that are especially important to the homeless, thus taking pressure off the regular routes. He took his cue from the Baltimore practice of using buses as warm up or cooling spaces during Artscape in the summer or the Monument Lighting in the winter.
Though you may encounter a few “bad apples”, for the most part homeless riders aren’t a problem. They genuinely want to get on, feel safe as transit is much safer than the streets, and go to sleep. That’s it. Create A “Transit Care Bus”- Use an artic if you have them; they will allow safe spacing. Layover The Bus At HotSpots and Run The Route To Other Hot Spots.- If you dont know where the homeless hot spots are, ask your operators, they’ll know off hand. Periodically run the route through those corridors picking up patrons and promoting the resource at the same time. (Bus Operator 1198 on Medium)
The media are full of stories on how we have to imagine a world in which Corona will dictate all of our steps. Transit is front and center in these discussions, along with elevators in buildings, classrooms in schools, restaurants and offices, all the places that don't make 6' distancing easy.

Those who never liked transit and prefer the private car, take advantage of virologists attributing the catastrophe in New York to the city's subway.

Those who always thought people should drive less take the cleaner air and the empty city streets as an opportunity to propagate a batter distribution of streetscape for pedestrians, buses and bikes.
Driver protection zone (Chicago)

And those who depend on transit simply hope that service will soon get back to normal frequencies and operations.

Which of these scenarios will come to pass? As it is the case for almost everything else, the future of transit is deeply immersed in the fog of the ongoing battle against the virus.  Large cities will never work well without transit in the same way as tall buildings won't work without elevators or international travel will require planes.

As with everything else, though, there are hidden opportunities. "Never let a good crisis go to waste", Delegate Robbyn Lewis quoted Winston Churchill in her effort towards are more equitable and safer transportation system in Baltimore. In that sense cities may come out of this crisis with a heightened awareness of how important functional transit really is to keep things going.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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Monday, May 4, 2020

The draft Regional Plan: A better future for Maryland Transit?

Once upon a time, before a small virus began to take the world hostage, there was a time when people cared about Baltimore transit so much they wanted to make it better. Enlightened law makers passed bills in Annapolis in the hope to create a better future for Baltimore's buses, trains and mobility services.
Transit during COVID: "Essential Travel Only"
on North Avenue (Photo: Philipsen)

One bill that passed in 2018 demanded the creation of a Regional Transit Plan by October 2020. (I reported about it in this space). The bill was amended in 2019. In 2020 a slew of transit oriented  bills fell victim to the virus and the abbreviation of the session this year. (A list of 2020 transit bills here).  The transit supportive lawmakers banded together and have become a strong voice in Annapolis. As Delegate Lierman explained:
[About the re-election of Governor Hogan] “That reality, coupled with the recognition that there was no long-term plan for expanding transit around the state and the role of single-occupancy vehicles in climate change, really propelled us to start thinking bigger about pushing a pro-transit agenda.” (Brooke Lierman, sponsor of various transit bills about the new Transit caucus in the legislature)
This article is about the progress on the regional Transit Plan and the state of other transit bills in Maryland.

A Regional Transit Plan could be an amazing thing, given that the last plan from 2002 was essentially wiped out when the Red Line was cancelled. Since 2015 there has been no plan for the region's transit beyond the Baltimore bus revamp that brought us "Baltimore Link". No plan exists that would show any expansion or any improvements of any of the transit modes except a state of good repair for what's already on the ground. And even that wasn't funded.
Goals and Objectives from the Regional Transit
Plan (RTP)
The Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan (RTP) is a plan for improving public transportation in the region over the next 25 years.(From the Plan intro)
Hard to believe, but the pandemic did not wipe out the work on the RTP. Instead, it continued in spite of social distancing and MTA being in the cross-hairs  of  the conundrum of running transit transit for essential workers and protect riders and operators at the same time.

A draft Regional Plan was published for comment in April. The due date for the final plan is October, comments on the draft plan can be submitted until June 18 by going online and commenting directly inside the plan. Transit advocates greeted the draft with optimism:
As the COVID-19 crisis shines a light on the vital importance of public transit service in the Baltimore region, a newly released regional transit plan provides an historic opportunity to make much needed improvements that have long been identified by riders, advocates, employers, and other regional stakeholders. The draft plan advances the process of building consensus around a bold vision for Baltimore’s transit system and advocates are preparing public comments to strengthen it further.

The Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan is the first comprehensive transit plan for the region in a generation. Advocates are pushing for a plan that provides meaningful changes in people's lives and hope to see implementation of a strong plan begin as early as this fall, starting with feasibility studies planned by MTA and BMC for several priority transit corridors.(Press release of a coalition of transit advocates collaborating under the programmatic moniker: Get Maryland Moving. Disclosure: The author is a participant).
State of poor repair: Stranded MTA Bus on the Blue Route Photo: Ph)

Back when the upcoming mayoral race in Baltimore City still gathered a fair amount of attention, candidates for Mayor started discussing the need for a regional transit authority instead of a State run one. Having the State run transit in a major metro area is quite an anomaly in the United States.  MTA is by no means small potatoes, visible in the figures Administrator Kevin Quinn recites in his welcome letter inside the draft plan, after all MTA serves a region of 2,100 square miles, covering over 2.55 million residents, and 1.24 million jobs:
The Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration(MDOT MTA) has been providing transit services for the State for over 50years since its inception as the Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1969. Today,MDOT MTA operates the 12th largest multimodal transit system in the countrywith over 250,000 daily riders, 6 transit modes, and paratransit service, whileproviding support to locally operated transit systems throughout Maryland. (Kevin Quinn, MTA Administrator).
However, the potential transfer of transit in the metro area from the state to a regional authority is not part of this RTP, which is not surprising since the plan was penned by MTA. The matter of a local agency will be studied by a working group of the legislators.
Fixed route improvements for Baltimore: From the RTP

So what is in the 67 page draft plan?  There are six pages of introduction, four pages why transit matters, three pages of goals and objectives, 21 pages of strategies, 14 pages of network improvements and 9 pages of a description of the region's transit corridors. Finally, at the end three pages with next steps.

The plan was not conceived to be the typical wish-list of projects that politicians usually express to MDOT for future planning. Instead the plan is supposed to be based on an analysis of transit needs and the deficiencies of the current system in which the discrepancy between these two translates into in a plan of improvement.

The actual exercise to date wasn't as clear-cut. Although the advisory regional RTP Committee consisting of representatives of the region got a pretty unvarnished description of transit's current shortcomings when MTA Administrator Quinn presented at the first session, goals and objectives were defined in a much loftier language than a simple reversal of the shortcomings would have delivered.
MARC train in the recently refurbished Halethorpe station (Penn Line)
(Photo: Elvert Barnes)

The objectives are: Faster more reliable transit, growing ridership, faster more reliable and more equitable service, better job access and "prepare for the future". There has been some analysis and a discussion of strategies before projects would be listed. That is good, because many shortcomings do not stem from "hardware" or the lack of  transit routes but from operational and non physical aspects.

Part of the findings in the draft plan deal with delays from the current cash payment system, GPS tracking capabilities of transit vehicles in real time, dedicated bus lanes and cooperation with employers. Another part identified issues beyond the control of MTA, many having to do with land use. For example job growth in areas not served by transit and lack of development where transit already is in place. Lastly, there is the obvious fact that transit's performance is most important to the most vulnerable populations, the aging, the poor and the people with disabilities. Poor performance, therefore isn't equitable and the best performing modes of the system often doesn't serve the disadvantaged people.
Even the objective of "preparing for the future" isn't as hollow as it sounds: Changes in the workforce and in technology are so rapid, that any plan has to forward looking enough not to be outdated before it has been completed.
The Transit Corridors of the RTP

Finally, the suggested improvements: They range from possible additional commuter routes, the creation of transit hubs where various routes or modes meet to extension of services hours or frequencies on existing systems, consideration of new local and express bus routes and the definition of regional transit corridors in which transit services and land use planning would be bundled and prioritized. The latter have been grouped into "early opportunity", mid-term and long-term. Recommendations include also elements of a traditional projects list including items listed by the BBJ in this manner:
  • Realigning the light rail tracks on Howard Street
  • Supporting Amtrak in the construction of a new Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel on the MARC Penn Line. A new B&P Tunnel has been in the works for years but does not have funding. The project had an estimated cost of $4.5 billion in 2017.
  • Removing at-grade crossings on the MARC Camden Line
  • Replacing the West Baltimore Station in coordination with the B&P Tunnel realignment
  • Establishing a connection between the MARC Penn and Camden Lines
  • a possible extension of MARC train service to L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.

Lastly, and much in keeping with demands form transit advocates, the RTP addresses the matter of  measures of progress, tools that are supposed to allow the public to hold the agency's feet to the fire by measuring progress from year to year under metrics such as speed, reliability, ridership, transit accessible jobs and mode split. Only equity has no proper metric, except to measure ADA accessibility.

The RTP has goals and objectives, and some moderate targets. The question is what it would take to reach those targets. There is no modeling that would indicate how much each proposed measure would contribute towards the targets. Not even the baselines are given, nor are there comparisons to other systems. The plan has a 215 year horizon with updates every 5 years. Therefore, targets should be set for 5 year increments. This issue will certainly be one of the comments of transit advocates.

At no point does the RTP get as concise as the 2002 plan, which resulted in a system map that looked like the one depicting the DC metro system. The new plan doesn't have a substitute for the Red Line nor does it reinstate the Red Line, as much as many transit advocates would want to see just that. But the RTP isn't as limited as the old plan either. Its focus isn't just rail in recognition that the majority of riders are bus riders.  The RTP is not constrained by cost and it doesn't carry any cost for the suggested measures.

In light of the all encompassing world wide, biggest possible crash global societies currently experience, readers that made it to this point may be consumed by the question: Who cares about transit? Won't transit be hard hit by social distancing and the reverberating fears that may persist long after a vaccine has been found for this virus? Certainly, transit riderships have fallen precipitously during the pandemic. But the crisis has also shown, that metropolitan areas and big cities cannot exist without it. Buses, trains and subways continued to shuttle essential workers to and from their jobs, no matter that the workers in the buses and trains not only risked their lives at their jobs but also in transit. everyone, including those safely at home benefit from transit, especially in difficult times. Even though the virus has accentuated the division between those who are transit dependent and those who have a choice even more, it surely hasn't proven transit superfluous. The crisis, however, further highlighted current vulnerabilities and weaknesses that left many essential worker riders livid about the service.

And as far as having lost the Red Line: Montgomery and Princes George's Counties which were allowed to move forward with the construction on the Purple Line may not be as lucky at it seemed. After innumerable delays two of their key contractors threatened to walk off the job (Washington Business Journal), potentially providing a deadly blow to the much touted Private Partnership Project (P3). Tye project is under construction since August 2017 and is with a final price tag of $5.6 billion  the largest public-private partnership (P3) transit development in North America today. It is owned by the MDOT MTA. The Purple Line Transit Partners (PLTP) represents the private-sector partner to design, build, operate and maintain the light-rail system. The 36-year agreement includes a six-year design and construction period followed by a 30-year operations and maintenance period. 
Purple Line Construction (Photo: Purple Line Transit Constructors)

P3’s are not the easy fix that some believe they are. The main umbrella contract remains intact but could be in jeopardy. The lesson:
Government and private businesses dance to very different pipers when it comes to schedule and cost.

The future of our regional transit is under as many question marks as ever. Like so much in this pandemic, the weaker the baseline when the crisis hits, the worse the outcome afterwards.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Corrected and refined for statements about targets. 5/5/20

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