A Baltimore CityLink bus by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

As CARES Act funding has begun to run out and new revenue has dried up the past few months amid the COVID-19 pandemic, so has public transit in the United States, with agencies across the country forced to cut service, especially buses.

The list of large cities with bus service on the chopping block already included such cities as San Francisco and Washington, DC, and if a new proposal released Tuesday by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) becomes reality in January, 2021, that list will soon include Baltimore, to potentially devastating effect.

How could these changes impact riders?

All told, the MTA’s “Winter 2021 Service Adjustments” would entirely eliminate 16 of its 44 “LocalLink” routes (the medium-to-high frequency bus routes which, along with the highest frequency “CityLink” routes, form the vast majority of its BaltimoreLink system), all nine of the “Express BusLink” routes offering limited-stop service between Baltimore and its suburbs in Baltimore, Howard, and Anne Arundel Counties, and two of its 36 “Commuter Bus” routes, both connecting Baltimore City with Annapolis (In fact, by the MTA’s own admission, between the elimination of LocalLink 70 and Commuter Bus routes #210 and #215, it would no longer provide direct bus service between Baltimore and the already transit-starved state capital). Each LocalLink route cut would also result in a corresponding reduction of the service area for the MobilityLink service the MTA offers some riders with disabilities.

11 additional LocalLink routes would see their frequency reduced, some to as much as 60 minutes apart, and 13 CityLink or LocalLink routes would be modified, most of them to make up for the gaps created by the other eliminated or reduced routes. 20 of the 34 remaining Commuter Bus routes operating throughout Maryland would also see their frequency reduced due to low ridership.

Three MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter) trains which currently run the full length of the Penn Line between Union Station and Perryville in Cecil County, albeit only on weekdays, would either be cut back to Baltimore Penn Station or eliminated entirely, leaving just one train on Friday to serve Perryville or the Penn Line’s two stops in Harford County at Edgewood and Aberdeen (and likewise greatly curtailing service to Martin State Airport in Baltimore County).

The plan would also cut two other northbound trains currently running between Union Station and Baltimore Penn Station on weekday mornings and one southbound weekday morning train in the other direction. The Camden Line would lose two eastbound trains from Union Station to Camden Station, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and one shorter afternoon train between Union Station and Dorsey, on the border between Anne Arundel and Howard Counties.

Not all services will be reduced

Admittedly, the MTA’s plan wouldn’t all be cuts. LocalLinks 56 and 78, connecting Downtown Baltimore with the job-rich Baltimore County suburbs of White Marsh and Woodlawn, and LocalLink 69 connecting southern Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County would each see some of their frequency increased.

Moreover, COVID-19 and its economic effects have drastically reduced the revenue going into the MTA’s main funding source, Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund and in the statement announcing the cuts, MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn revealed that his agency expects to have fully expended its CARES Act funds by the end of this month.

“The financial impact created by the COVID-19 crisis has created an unparalleled challenge for transit agencies across the US and many are facing difficult decisions,” Quinn said. “MDOT MTA will continue to strive for a safe, reliable, and equitable transit system that provides opportunity to all citizens in the Baltimore region.”

Still, the announcement of the proposed cuts was met with disappointment, dismay, and even some anger by many Baltimore-area riders, transit advocates, and elected officials alike.

This was especially amplified by the cuts being released the same day Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced his plans to move the state into “Stage 3” of its coronavirus reopening plan on Friday, something riders and transit experts feared could be greatly hampered by the amount of eliminated, reduced, or significantly altered routes.

Moreover, while Baltimore City Public Schools is currently operating on an all-virtual learning model, once it does eventually resume in-person classes, most of its students don’t use school buses and are entirely reliant on the MTA’s buses and trains to get to class.

Two of Baltimore’s most prominent transit organizations, the cycling advocacy group Bikemore and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA), both condemned the cuts.

“It’s probably negligible,” Bikemore Policy Director Jed Weeks said of the cuts’ likely cost to the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT)’s budget, although MTA spokesperson Veronica Batisti did later tell the Baltimore Sun that the agency hoped to save $1 million in their 2021 operating budget by reducing overtime. “So why do it?”

In a joint statement released on Monday in anticipation of the cuts, Bikemore and the CMTA emphasised the devastating effect they would have on frontline employees, people with disabilities, children, and teenagers:

The pandemic has caused significant financial stress to communities demonstrated to be most reliant on public transportation to get to work. Changes to transit service must consider equity, economic stability, and the public health of our most vulnerable communities. We must do all we can to maintain connectivity to the resources people need the most: jobs, health care, and healthy foods.

Essential workers, people with disabilities, and young people rely on public transit. The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and Bikemore are committed to working with MTA to ensure these schedule changes do not leave our most vulnerable residents behind.

The CMTA and Bikemore’s criticism was echoed by Baltimore City Councilmember Ryan Dorsey, who chairs the Council’s Transportation Committee:

“Simply put, public transit service is critically important to our region’s economic, environmental, and publlic health, both now and in the future,” Dorsey said in a statment. “It’s the last thing we can ever afford to cut, and reductions in transit service always disproportionately impact Black, low-income, and transit-dependent populations.”

The cuts were also roundly condemned in a joint statement released by Baltimore City Mayor Bernard “Jack” C. Young, Baltimore City Council President and Democratic nominee for Mayor Brandon Scott, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.

“As leaders within the region, we will be evaluating these proposed reductions and service changes carefully over the coming days and weeks and will be prepared to offer detailed comments to the MTA in early October”, the officials said in the statement. “We need more information from MDOT and regional employers to help determine the full impact of these cuts to service on our local economies and businesses. We call on all residents in the region to join their elected leaders in voicing opposition to these cuts during MTA’s public comment period.”

What’s next for the plan and for riders

Before implementing any of the cuts, the MTA and MDOT will hold a 30-day “public review and comment period” ending November 15 which will include 10 virtual public hearings on the Local Bus cuts between October 5 and October 16. How those hearings turn out could go a long way towards determining the future of Baltimore transit.

Alex Holt is a New York state native, Maryland transplant, and freelance writer. He lives in Mt. Washington in Baltimore and enjoys geeking out about all things transit, sports, politics, and comics, not necessarily in that order.

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