Laslo Boyd: Is Hogan’s Baltimore bus plan a serious proposal?

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Last week, in a well-orchestrated press event, Governor Larry Hogan announced his solution to Baltimore’s transportation infrastructure needs.  Promising to “blow up” the current system, widely regarded as inadequate, Hogan outlined a series of steps for the next two years that he called transformational. 

Responses to the announcement broke into three segments.  There were some, including several mayoral candidates, who welcomed the Administration’s initiative as a positive step that would move the City forward.  There were others who criticized the plan as a pale shadow of the cancelled Red Line and saw it as primarily a public relations maneuver.  A final group noted that the proposal is a concept devoid of detail and that any evaluation needs to wait until much more is known about the specifics.

Do we know enough at this point to offer a fair assessment?  There are certainly a lot of unanswered questions that will have a significant bearing on any evaluation.

CityLink, as the project has been branded by the Administration, is described as a $135 million investment.  The money seems to be coming from a number of sources, including federal funds and monies shifted from the Maryland Port Administration. 

It is unclear, however, how much of the $135 million was already committed in the MTA budget and is merely being repurposed.  Significantly, at the time of the cancellation of the Red Line, Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn made it abundantly clear that any transit improvements in Baltimore would “be done with existing resources…” because all other monies were committed to the highway projects that the Administration announced.

Another question that will eventually have to be answered is whether $135 million will actually cover the cost of the proposal.  Complicated undertakings almost invariably come in over the original estimates.  Without more details, it’s almost impossible to determine whether the stated amount is anywhere near realistic.

Secretary Rahn describes the funding as coming from the State’s Transportation Trust Fund and argues that the specific sources are not really important because money in the Trust Fund can be shifted around and is, in budget-speak, fungible.  Past experience strongly suggests that the Federal Government is unlikely to accept his view and will insist on following required processes for making changes in the way their dollars are spent.

That ties to a much more significant issue.  The concepts announced in last week’s press event will, once they get translated into specific plans, be subject to public hearings and detailed review processes.  The Administration has suggested that those steps will not provide any major obstacles, but, again, past history would suggest otherwise. 

When Hogan’s Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, was governor, his Administration tried to make major changes in the configuration of Baltimore bus routes.   They ran into a political firestorm and ended up backing off the effort. 

As complicated as sorting out the funding and getting through the labyrinth of approvals are, a bigger issue is whether the proposal will actually work in the way that the Administration claims.  At this point, no part of this concept has been subjected to a transportation modeling analysis.

For example, one significant feature of the new system will be the capacity for buses on key routes to override traffic lights in the same way that Light Rail does on a limited basis now.  How will that impact traffic flow on other streets?  And to the extent you create designated bus lanes, will that force cars onto other streets and create additional traffic backups there?  The traffic override system is in place in a number of other cities and might be an important step, but making it work as part of a system is complicated.

Hogan pointed out that his team looked at earlier efforts, including the Bus Network Improvement Project that was a major undertaking of the O’Malley Administration.  What he neglected to mention was that the O’Malley initiative was designed to complement the Red Line, not to be a stand-alone feature.

There are lots of other details still missing from the Hogan Administration’s plan.  There is an emphasis, for example, on developing new express bus routes to major employment centers outside the City.  Will that effort be done in partnership with employers and utilize research on need or will it be just a set of lines on a map?

Another significant issue is that of coordination of this plan with Baltimore City.  Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not attend the press event and criticized the plan after it was announced.  Many of the key features of the traffic system in Baltimore, such as management of streets and of stoplights, are City controlled.  Whether it is Rawlings-Blake or the next mayor, Hogan is going to need to communicate far more effectively with City leaders than he has up to now.

Unfortunately, Hogan’s whole approach to the City has been characterized by dismissive criticism of what has been done in the past and relatively little effort to work with City officials.  The rollout of this plan is unrealistically indifferent to the approval processes that will be necessary and to the value of a cooperative relationship with City officials. 

If you were giving the Governor the benefit of the doubt, you might conclude that he has come up with an alternative to the Red Line that conforms with his governing and fiscal principles. Moreover, given that the bulk of the proposed system is scheduled for a June 2017 implementation, Hogan and Rahn have bought themselves additional time to fill in the details. 

On the other hand, if you were even a little bit of a skeptic, you might conclude that Hogan is merely trying to change the narrative from one about the cancellation of the Red Line to one that debates the merits of bus lines.  Is this whole effort driven by substantive policy concerns or by public relations spin?

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.