Wednesday, January 27, 2021

How Cooperating Leaders Will Shape the Future of the Baltimore Region

 On a cool winter Monday morning the newly minted Mayor Brandon Scott and the also still relatively new Executives of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howards County, Olszewski, Pittman and Ball huddled around the entrance to Hopkins subway station.  They held a press conference in support of transit funding. Together they demanded better funding of the MTA which serves all four of the jurisdictions with bus or rail service. No longer see the regional leaders transit as only an issue that affects merely Baltimore City.

A bit later in January Steuart Pittman launched an online "Future Forum" under the title "Common Ground: Urban Rural, Suburban". His speakers included former Baltimore Mayor Rawlings Blake, former State Planning Director Hall, The Bay Foundation's Allison Prost and Colby Ferguson from the MD Farm Bureau. There was some tough talk about land use and preserving open space. No longer sees this executive land use solely through the lens of homeowners and property rights. 

Pittman showed himself during his online event in front of a scenic photo of a farm meadow and a wooded edge. "This is the last larger farm near BWI", he explained, "it will soon become a bunch of warehouses. That wasn't in the plan", he observed, "but a council member voted for a zoning change, and so it goes", adding that this continued land consumption has to stop. Indeed, Maryland's' development footprint increased in the last 50 years more than it had occupied in the 250 years before, another way of saying it more than doubled in only 50 years! Neither city nor suburbs can thrive if the natural environment is destroyed.

The Baltimore Business Journal ran a cover story of its print edition under the headline "Howard County's Smart Growth Challenge" in which the paper points out that only 2% undeveloped or not protected open space is left for development in Howard County. Executive Ball promises a balance between the County's environmental, economic and social standing. His Planning Director is pointing to redevelopment as the new frontier for growth. 

“We are at a point in our maturity as a county where we are having to look at redevelopment opportunities for the future and less on typical suburban growth patterns,” Amy Gowan, director of Howard County’s Department of Planning and Zoning.

For a shift in the growth paradigm it comes in handy that both, Baltimore County and Howard County are starting new masterplans this year. Brandon Scott has vowed to restructure City government and pay way more attention to the City's disinvested neighborhoods. Equity and economic development is no longer a zero sum game where one jurisdiction can thrive while the other fails.

Mayor Scott and Executives Olszewski (at the podium), Ball and
Pittman at the Johns Hopkins Metro Station.

Together these young leaders can be quite a force. Will they be?

The Baltimore Metro area, as defined by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, also includes Harford and Carroll Counties which are more rural and more conservative and have historically put their foot on the break when the core jurisdictions became too brash. Given the multi-pronged crisis we are facing, the quartet of progressive young leaders may just be the medicine this region needs if they continue to forge ahead with a coordinated and prudent land use and transportation strategy that looks at economic development, environmental protection and social justice all at once. There is much to do.

  • Sprawl is continuing unabated, threatening farms and forests and putting pressure on the designated agricultural preserves all the while Baltimore City's population continues to shrink and the amount of abandoned land grows.
  • Neither in the three Counties nor in the City growth does development pay any attention to where transit is already on the ground, especially expensive high capacity rail transit. Before Hogan Maryland's Department of Transportation had once worked out that all of the State's growth could fit into the underdeveloped lands around existing transit stations. 
  • All three Counties have a history of picking the lucrative raisins out of growth combined with overt racism. As a result economic energy was directed towards the suburbs and siphoned out of the region's core city. 
Racism is how light rail never made it through Glen Burnie to reach Annapolis, how Ruxton fended off a light rail station, how in Owings Mills the terminal Metro station was kept isolated in a highway median, far away from the now defunct and demolished mall, and how a segment of the planned and then defeated  Baltimore City freeway network was built in an African American neighborhood. ("The Highway to Nowhere").
Steuart Pittsman's new platform: Future Matters

All four jurisdictions never zoned land so development would be concentrated where the MTA stations are. The region's lukewarm relation to MTA and its transit system was a key reason why Hogan could get away with killing $ billion Red Line and returning nearly $1 billion of federal funds to the feds. For decades transit oriented development (TOD) remained just a slogan with a few half-hearted projects such as Symphony Center, Odenton and Dorsey Road as fig leaves on the generally dismal state of affairs. Of course, today Howard County would love to have rail access to Columbia. Instead it lost its bus life line when MTA struck the 150 Express bus, the only transit connection from Columbia to downtown. 

Although land use (and its relation to transit) sounds like a geeky and esoteric topic to most people, it is key to solve the cacophony of crisis we currently face: 

  • the crisis of inequity and racism, 
  • the crisis of climate change and 
  • the crisis of depleted public coffers. 
As the above examples illustrate, sprawl and dispersal of development have facilitated racial and income segregation. Sprawl consumes viable natural resources and exacerbates the climate crisis; sprawl also depletes public funds, because the dispersed infrastructure is fiscally unsustainable in the longer run.  

Rash development on green fields once created a gold rush of quick revenue for local government. Increasingly this pattern has turned into a fiscal liability with the insight that edge developments age and the endless new roads, schools, and pipes will have to be maintained or repaired. Meanwhile the core city of the region, Baltimore is suffering from abandonment. Its concentrations of poverty, crime and failing schools have long become a problem that also affects the surrounding communities and the State of Maryland as a whole. The Baltimore region is not unique in this paradigm. In fact, the entire US will be in trouble if the trifecta of inequality, climate crisis and public debt isn't addressed promptly and fairly radically.

The pandemic has made discrepancies crystal clear. Although experts differ greatly in their predictions of what the longterm effects of this unprecedented health crisis will be, they agree that it has already heightened and amplified all the other ailments from which our nation suffers. 

Regional problem: Trash

Mayor Scott and County Executives Olsziewski, Ball and Pittman need all the support they can get to succeed in turning the regional ship around. The Maryland Legislature is considering several bills this period which would be of great help for the Central Maryland region. Two are of exceptional interest: The Transit Safety Investment Act and the Climate Solutions Now bill. The former is the reason why the Executives had gathered at the Hopkins subway station.   

Many other urgent issues that affect everyone's daily life are awaiting solution and know no jurisdictional boundaries: The aging regional water system and its billing troubles, the aging regional trash incinerator that sits in Baltimore City but 50% of the trash burnt there is from the County, the regional and State electric grid that needs to become more resilient and much greener and the Chesapeake Bay which knows no boundaries, only watersheds. (A WYPR moderated discussion with County Executive Olszewski and others about regional collaboration for the Chesapeake is here).

The Baltimore region is one of only a very few in the nation, where the core city is not part of the surrounding county. While there is little hope for a truly regional government in the near future, well cooperating leaders and legislators are exactly what is needed to solve our multi-prong crisis. But they can only succeed if residents are willing to bury the illusion that they will be fine if they managed to secure a safe and secluded spot on the map and that racism, climate or transportation should not concern them. 

With collaboration and a focus on regional solutions the untapped potential of our metro area is vast. Let's tap it!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, January 15, 2021

A New Tune from City DOT

For years Baltimore City DOT mostly made headlines for unfixed potholes, badly timed traffic signals, the faltering of the once popular Circulator bus, followed by the faltering of the Baltimore Water Taxi service (a private service licensed by the City), and the collapse of Baltimore Bikeshare. As frosting on these failures DOT installed bikelanes and then ripped some out again. To boot it missed opportunities to apply for federal grants or to submit the transportation "priority letter" to MDOT in time. The litany of misery was topped off when employees resigned en masse due to alleged abusive behavior of the director and finally the director herself suddenly departed in the wake of Mayor Pugh's "Healthy Holly" scandal.

A new age for Baltimore City transportation (Photo Phlipsen)

Then came Steve Sharkey, a manager who switched over from the Office of General Services and was tasked by then Mayor Young to get DOT  in order, mostly by managing better what MC DOT has to manage. 

This was no small assignment, considering  that the department, which was split from Public Works some years ago in the hope of giving transportation more attention, manages about 30% of the City's land area which happen to be the public roads, plazas and alleys. 

DOT also runs or licenses the City's cool mobility systems, the water Connector, the water taxi, the Circulator and the various scooter and bikeshare services. 

How much BC-DOT has changed becomes already clear  when one opens the department's website: Instead of a photo of the Director accompanied with a murky message there is now a clearly structured welcome page with buttons for the main aspects of DOT's work, along with a status report using the traffic signal colors showing which services are running under COVID.

Baltimore bus lanes (BC-DOT image)

The new City DOT 18 months with Sharkey's at the helm came into even starker focus at this week's morning meeting of the transit advocacy group Transit Choices where Sharkey was the keynote speaker. He started his presentation by focusing on the 29% of City households who don't own a car and going from their to stress the importance of MTA's bus service. "Bus transit is an important basic function in the city along with fire police and water", and defining as part of his work the question" How can the city be a partner to MTA, especially for the bus?" adding that "buses are the workhorses of transit in American cities and declaring that "Its true economic development to connect people to their jobs". When did one ever hear words like this from a department that in the past was singularly focused on the automobile and the free flow on city streets?

Charm City: New Nova Bus (Photo: Philipsen)

"Part of the transit experience is the wait", Sharkey explained in transitioning to the importance of bus stops and the role that the City plays in approving and permitting stops and ensuring that the necessary amenities such as shelters can be placed.  "You can help by resisting those who want to remove bus stops because they don't like the people sitting under the shelters", he told the roughly 50 advocates following his presentation on Zoom. Addressing MDOT he said "We need to not cut transit in the middle of a crisis but support transit because we need it". Sharkey clearly understands that the State-run MTA bus transit can only function well when MTA and the City are partners. MTA buses run on City streets after all, and they can be only fast and reliable when they are not stuck in congestion, delayed by signals or falling apart because of the terrible condition of the pavement. 

The newly discovered partnership is not just a matter of words. Sharkey and Mayor Scott had recently a direct conversation with the MTA Administrator, something that nobody recalled to have happened ever before. 

The list of touch points in which the collaborative idea translates into actual projects is long. Sharkey ticked off these projects and investments:

  • The "North Ave Rising" project under construction that installs 7 miles of additional bus lanes
  • $5mio investments from federal money for capital improvements on priority bus bus routes.
  • Easier permitting of the construction of shelters on City sidewalks
  • Installation of signal priority (TSP) that gives buses some advantage at traffic signals 
  • Corridor studies for the Blue and Orange Link bus routes from North Bend to Essex 
  • The implementation of the City Council enacted Complete Streets law which requires that pedestrians, bicycles and buses have highest priority on public streets
  • Support for the bus lane enforcement bill introduced by Delegate Robbyn Lewis (who also presented to Transit Choices)
    "Transit Deserts" (red, image BC-DOT)

  • Support and participation in the Regional Transit Plan (RTP) and the corridor studies with two priority corridors in Baltimore City (east west and north south)
  • Legislative support in Annapolis for the Transit Investment Act to be debated in Annapolis next week.
  • Attention to the identified "transit deserts" in the name of better transit equity
"COVID hit transit hard, especially those agencies who are farebox dependent", Sharkey noted in concluding his remarks about working with MTA. 

Of course, as a transit provider, BC-DOT knows the impact of COVID on ridership first hand. The Harbor Connector, Baltimore's municipal version of water transit currently runs only 2 of 3 routes thanks to a severe drop in ridership. The remaining water taxi service licensed by DOT has been fully suspended. The Connector and the Charm City Circulator are both DOT operated transit services, originally funded by a surcharge on Baltimore's parking tax, but eventually becoming underfunded because "of mission creep" as Sharkey called it. He reported that the Orange and the Purple lines had the least decline in ridership. He noted as the biggest reason for past troubles the lack of maintenance on the Circulator buses. The City now operates six new buses and is in the process of adding six more and is reviewing the route map. "Stay tuned", Sharkey advised the audience. 

Asked about the bike-lanes Starkey pointed to the past high turn-over in the position of bike planner which he hopes has now stabilized, so the bike-share program "can be built back" and more bike lanes be added. 

Collaboration Opportunities (BC-DOT graphic)

Thanks to COVID the City saw an unprecedented installation of miles of BC-DOT designated "Slow Streets", as well as the use of street space for outdoor dining. 

Asked whether those saw-horse barricades would transform into a more permanent strategy, Sharkey allowed that not all of the program was as successful as the "recreational use" of closed streets around Lake Montebello. Adding that the Slow Streets also have a traffic calming component, he noted that regulations have to catch up, citing as an example the law that pedestrians have to use a sidewalk if there is one. This may explain the lack of acceptance in some areas which saw many of the "Road Closed" sawhorses simply being pushed to the side by motorists. We are replacing the flimsy sawhorses with more stable "class 3 barriers" he said, as it was done in other cities.  
The bus stop is part of the journey  (Photo: Philipsen)

An ably managed and led Department of Transportation has become the signature of many progressive cities which put quality of life, traffic safety, transit, alternative transportation and equity on the forefront of their agenda. 

Baltimore seems to be catching up. Mayor Scott who is much more interested in transportation than his predecessors is probably well advised by keeping Director Sharkey in place. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA