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June 3, 2010

A view from the right on the MTA

For a view from the right on the Maryland Transit Administration, you need go no farther than the Red Maryland blog, where Brian Griffiths holds forth on the state of the MTA. It came to my attention recently that Griffiths was complaining that because of alleged leftist leanings I wouldn't link to his posts when I was linking to Maryland Politics Watch. In fact he never asked me to do so or even called attention to his work.

This doesn't constitute an endorsement of Griffith views, any more than I endorse those of Maryland Politics Watch. I would note, however, that the MPW article I most recently linked to -- though it had a point of view -- was solidly grounded in hard data.

The Red Maryland article, on the other hand, was almost entirely grounded in ideology. Entitled "Starve the Beast," it contains such gems as: "If I were in charge of the MTA, I would take steps to make the Agency profitable. There are ways to make the system self-sufficient without making the system unsafe or transit fares unaffordable to average riders."

If Griffiths has such unique abilities to do things no transit leaders in the United States have accomplished, one might wonder why the previous Republican administration overlooked those abilities and left mere mortals in charge.

In fact, the people Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appointed -- especially Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan -- learned many things about running a transit agency, one of which is that it's one of the toughest tasks in state government.

Suffice it to say, the Ehrlich administration did not bring about a Cultural Revolution at the MTA -- largely because the governor and his aides took what might be called a pragmatic Republican approach. Among other things, they negotiated with unions rather than seek to crush them. They also led the move into hybrid buses and improved mobility services -- worthy efforts but hardly money-savers.

The phrase "starve the beast" is a popular one on the far right, but it does pose a question: "What good is a beast that's been starved to death?" It won't be able to transport many low-income workers to the subsistence-level jobs that keep them off welfare. That's the public service aspect of transit that Griffiths misses: It's not a profit-generating business, nor was it ever intended to be.

I hope to call attention to Red Maryland's future writings on transportation when I think they will interest Getting There readers, but I would challenge Griffiths to back up his arguments with more facts and fewer categorical but unverifiable statements.




One right-friendly idea I would like to see someone adopt would be the widespread use of shared vans (like the Super Shuttles at the airport) instead of buses. In other, poorer countries, these buses do a great job getting people from one place to another, and because 10 or 15 people can fit into a van, they're very economical.

For example, I live in the Waverly area, and many people here work at Johns Hopkins Hospital. There's not a MTA bus that directly connects the two neighborhoods, and while Hopkins operates a shuttle between its Eastern Campus and the medical campus, they purposely designed the schedule so it couldn't be used by employees (the shuttle runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.).

BUT--a shared van service, perhaps one that people can sign up for online and pay in day, week, or month installments, could easily serve the 10 or 15 people that live in the Waverly neighborhood and work at Hopkins. Shared vans could also get people around easily late at night (particularly from the bars/restaurants to neighborhoods) and, because they would be run by private companies, would be much more flexible than the bus system, which hasn't changed its routes in 50 years.

My understanding is that the taxi drivers (who charge $10 just to get from Waverly to the train station) are dead set against this, but I think the service is different enough that it wouldn't affect their business. Also, a shared taxi system could help replace the "hack" system in Baltimore, which is dangerous for all parties involved.

Unfortunately, I don't think conservatives are interested enough in public transit to adopt free-market, out of the box ideas like this one. Just in the past decade, we've seen the Bolt/Megabus/Chinatown buses revolutionize intercity travel in the U.S., and they did this without very much government support. If conservatives advocated a regulatory system that allowed for shared taxis to operate in Baltimore, I think everyone would be better off.

My biggest complaints with the MTA are similar to my complaints about the rest of state government: competence.

It drives me crazy that you can't just use a credit card (or debit card) on an MTA Bus, but we've spent $90 million on a system that still hasn't been delivered.

It drives me nuts how MTA bus drivers regularly run red lights downtown, and how they do the "two-lane angle block" at bus stops.

It drives me nuts how every so-called "light rail" plan is really "heavy rail", instead of using a narrow-gauge line with smaller, lighter equipment with more passing sidings so you could have a mix of "locals" and "expresses".

And why do you have to go to an MTA office to buy a monthly pass? Why can't they be ordered online, or better yet, why aren't they sold at any government building?

Gunpowder -- Totally agree with you on the comptency argument for MTA. I ride it every work day with varying levels of success. I take a bus in the morning to my office, but found the same bus line taking me home is always, literally ALWAYS, late or, in several cases, just never comes at all, which is beyond me. Now I have to walk 15 minutes to a metro stop, take that to State center and then walk another 10 minutes to get home in less than an hour...I work 2.5 miles from my apartment!

To your last complaint, I found out by accident that passes can be purchased at any time from the ticket machines in metro stations so you could check that out as well. It saved me a lot of hassle.

Also, I would say that the Smart Card program is great. I'm one of the system's testers and it's been easy to use and easy to refill the card at metro stops. Although some light rail machines won't take smart cards...again that makes no sense. But the card is much easier and faster than the paper tickets. More reliable too.


I think the city has a shared ride program. If you need to get to Hopkins Hospital from Waverly, I'd take the bus to the metro. It's a transfer, but it's pretty quick.

Brian isn't entirely incorrect though. If the overal thrust of his argument is that we need to consider a variety of was to make MTA service more sustainable (I'll substitute for his "profitable"), he's quite right, actually. But we do need to give a nod to MTA's past actions in this regard.

MARC Train

It was only about 18 months ago that MARC implemented a number of changes that have impacted how folks get around the region.

1. Elimination of the 10-Trip ticket. This forces riders to pay more "for less". Now that the ten trip is gone, they either purchase more expensive one-way tickets or perhaps more expensive monthly tickets (or found alternative ways to commute). The 10-trip ticket was ideal for someone who needed to ride to a specific destination several times over a 60-day period with flexibility not offered by a monthly ticket and at a discount over the one-way fare. MARC brings in more money.

2. "Origination" Surcharge. MARC 's Brunswick line offers service from Washington, through MoCo and FredCo all the way into West Virginia. MARC levied a signficant surcharge in addition to the base fares, such that, for example, monthly ticket holders commuting from Martinsburg would have to pay an extra $80/mo on top of the $250 cost of the monthly pass.

3. Eliminated trains on the Penn and Brunswick lines.

4. Cancelled plans for weekend service.

5. Eliminated station agents (employee salaries and benefits!) and replaced with ticket vending machines.

Commuter Bus

1. Reduced service between Columbia and Baltimore

2. Eliminated Bel Air to Baltimore route

3. Cut service on other routes from Baltimore to Harford Co.

3. Eliminated one Columbia-DC route, cut service on another.

4. Eliminated Annpolis to New Carrollton route.

5. Eliminated Waldorf to Suitland route.

On both MARC and on the commuter buses, MTA eliminated service on Federal holidays (despite the fact that ther ridership is not made up solely of federal employees) and reduced service after the major holidays in the last quarter of the calendar year.

So as far as the commuter buses and railroad go, the low-hanging fruit seems to have already been harvested. Where are the other inefficiencies Brian referred to, exactly? Or, is it not even so much that there are inefficiencies as it is that there are disincentives to transit use, from using MTA to take kids to school instead of school buses (see 2007 attacks on riders by school kids, camera-less surveilance systems, etc.) to operating (under grant) a free bus service network throughout the downtown area that cannibalizes fare-box recovery?

I also see as one of the major obstacles to increased MTA usage is the "centricity" of the system to Baltimore City.

I *could* use Light Rail, but most days light rail would actually take longer, and I would still have a 1.5 mile walk from light rail to my office. If you live in the far northern reaches of Baltimore Couty, Carroll County, or Harford county, MTA just isn't practical.

I'd like to agree with you, Gunpowder, but some things are out of MTA's hands.

The new Charm Card system? WBAL-TV (Channel 11) did their own investigation, and reported that Cubic (the company that provides the fareboxes and ticket machines) was slow to work the contract... and had to get WMATA up to speed to boot. OUI!

The speeding, yes, I agree with you there. Even some "drivers" on Light Rail run the red; I saw one today on my way back home run a light going southbound on Howard Street.

On Light Rail, though, they run on regular freight train lines north of North Avenue, and I think between Cherry Hill and Patapsco, according to the Baltimore City Paper. In essence, you could put them on the Amtrak/MARC Penn train line. Blame Willie Shafer for wanting to build it w/o the Fed's help.

Tickets online: MTA Pass Store, at, linked on their front page (twice!).

Also, Pete: MTA doesn't operate the Charm City Circulator. Veola does, the same guys who operate some of the commuter routes. That's on the CCC's site and was in the press in the Sun.

Drake, absolutely no dispute. Point being that it doesn't help fare-box recovery when there's a free service to siphon off ridership on the MTA-run services. That could point to potential inefficiencies at MTA (would there be a material overlap in transit service regardless of the operator?) that serve as barriers to sustainability.

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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