Under fire from Baltimore-area bus riders, business leaders, politicians, parents and advocates, the Hogan administration on Wednesday canceled its proposal to slash MTA bus service in the Baltimore region next year in response to falling revenues due to the coronavirus.
Instead, the commuter buses and MARC trains, which have seen deeper and more sustained drops in ridership this year, will offer reduced service beginning in November. Service will be adjusted “as needed to meet demand,” MTA chief Kevin Quinn said.
“The message has been clear: Core bus service in the Baltimore region is a lifeline for many,” Quinn said. “We heard the public’s perspective loud and clear, and we took a really hard look at what adjustments we could make.”
With about one in three Baltimoreans lacking access to a vehicle, and nearly 40% of bus riders working essential jobs, core bus ridership has remained higher than on the MARC train and commuter buses, suburban-to-city routes which serve more riders who can drive or work from home.
Bus ridership was down only 51% in the fourth week of September, compared to 89% for MARC and 87% for commuter buses, according to the MTA.
Beginning Nov. 2, MARC trains will run on an enhanced "R" holiday schedule, a 57% decrease in service, while the commuter buses will operate on an "S" snow day schedule, a 55% reduction in service, Quinn said. All Express Bus routes and LocalLinks 38 and 92 will remain suspended.
The MTA will preserve its MARC train slots on the CSX and Amtrak tracks and its contracts with commuter bus providers, said Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater.
“This plan allows us to respond nimbly as Maryland’s economy recovers and more choice riders cease teleworking or return to transit,” Slater said.
The cancelled proposal to permanently eliminate 25 MTA bus lines and reduce service on a dozen others due to plunging state revenues had been harshly criticized as inequitable even before next week’s planned public hearings, which the MTA has called off.
‘An egregious pattern of disinvestment’
Patricia Reed-El was late to work again when she stepped off the bus at Sinai Hospital on Monday.
The 60-year-old has worked as a cafe associate for 19 years. Her bus line wasn’t targeted to be cut, but her 45-minute commute has taken longer due to inconsistent bus service during the pandemic.
“Sometimes they’re late,” Reed-El said of the buses. “Sometimes some of them don’t show up."
Though the MTA is rolling back its service reductions, the state’s funding cuts to the agency remain in place. They have drawn anger from Baltimore boosters and transit advocates.
Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, accused the Hogan administration of playing a “shell game” with some of the federal CARES Act transit relief money by “clawing back state dollars” that previously had been allocated for the MTA.
After Congress allocated $145 million of the funding to support transit operations during the 2021 fiscal year, the governor removed $188 million in state money from the MTA operating budget, according to the alliance’s analysis.
“What was supposed to be extra money to support a critical service for essential workers was turned into a deficit,” O’Malley said.
The move represented a 21% cut in state funding to the MTA’s operating budget, far more than the 4%-8% budget cuts to the State Highway Administration, Motor Vehicle Administration and other state-run transportation agencies, O’Malley said.
Quinn emphasized that the CARES Act money was used for transit as intended, but he did not dispute the analysis, which he said MTA officials are still studying. Maryland lawmakers have raised similar concerns about uneven state funding cuts, he said.
“We’re still working through Brian’s calculations and understanding the math,” Quinn said. “We have heard that from state lawmakers.”
Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, is one of them.
Lierman, the Transit Caucus co-chair, put forward a bill that did not pass in the Senate during the last General Assembly session to mandate state funding levels for the MTA, based on the agency’s capital and operational needs. She and state Sen. Cory McCray plan to try again during the next session.
“We need to see additional investment,” Lierman said. “Nobody who has to rely on MTA service thinks that the status quo is good enough.”
The Greater Baltimore Committee said it was “unconscionable” that Maryland’s contributions to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s operating and capital budgets were fully funded “at the expense of sharp capital and service cuts in the Greater Baltimore region.”
“This action reflects an egregious pattern of disinvestment in underserved communities in the Baltimore region where Black and Brown residents are reliant on already insufficient transit service,” said Don Fry, president and CEO of the pro-business group.
‘It shouldn’t be that way’
As the eldest child in his family, Joe Kane remembers being responsible for dropping off his younger brother with his grandmother on his way to school. Missing his usual bus from Waverly often meant taking another that left him with more than a mile walk to the old Northern High School.
"That was 10, 15 years ago,” he said. “Today, there are similar stories. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Kane, who now lives in Ednor Gardens and has four children of his own, is the chair of the Parent and Community Advisory Board.
The group had expressed deep concern about the proposed service cuts, saying they reinforced de facto segregation by further limiting where students, many of them Black and Brown, could go. A third of all Baltimore public school students and 60% of all high schoolers rely on the MTA to get to school.
"It makes students' lives way more difficult than it has to be,” Kane said.
In a letter to the governor, the Transit Choices Coalition pointed to the MTA’s poor public transit system as “one of the key elements of structural racism in the Baltimore region.”
“Addressing the funding shortfall for transit is one key to correcting these inequalities," Transit Choices co-founder James Rouse Jr. and executive director Robin Budish wrote.
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