Transit officials, school officials and transit riders appeared virtually before the Baltimore City Council Wednesday night to discuss the Maryland Transit Administration’s proposed bus route cuts stemming from the fiscal impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don't, we don't, MDOT does not sit here as an opposing side trying to convince you that these cuts are OK,” Kevin Quinn, the MTA’s executive director, said before the council’s transportation committee. “They are impactful.”
But Maryland’s six-year draft transportation budget is set to shrink by $2.9 billion over that time period from the most recent budget. The proposed cuts will save the agency $43 million, or around 5%, of its fiscal year 2021 budget.
The cuts aim to reduce service on routes that have strong alternatives or have low ridership in order to maintain frequent service on highly traveled routes, Quinn said.
The MTA’s plan would eliminate LocalLink routes 21, 34, 38, 51, 52, 53, 57, 59, 70, 71, 73, 81, 82, 92 and 95, and Express Bus routes 103, 104, 105, 115, 120, 150, 154, 160 and 164.
The routes with proposed reduced service are 28, 29, 31, 33, 37, 62, 67, 76, 75, 77, 83 and 87.
The plan would also increase service along three LocalLink lines 56, 69 and 78 lines.
Local officials and transit riders largely denounced the proposed cuts after they were announced last week. They included Baltimore Mayor Jack Young, city Council President Brandon Scott, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, who issued a joint statement saying the plan would harm students and essential workers.
“We're really trying to work with our local and state officials, advocates, organizations,” Quinn said on Wednesday. “We want to gather as much feedback as we planned. And of course, when it's implemented, we'll be monitoring ridership levels and, really, the impact of those reductions.”
One area of particular concern is school transportation: about 35 percent of Baltimore City Public Schools students rely on MTA buses to get to class. As is, most of them have a commute of 35 minutes each way with at least one bus transfer, according to a 2017 report from the Baltimore Education Research Consortium.
“A third of our high school students are mainly dependent on public transit, and because they're not doing a straight route from home to school on one particular route, there's a lot of transfers that happen,” Lynette Washington, the COO of BCPS said. “It's very complicated for them.”
City schools are online for now, but once they reopen, parents are concerned the cuts may make getting to school even more of an ordeal, Washington said.
“Every additional 10 minute increase in commute time has a negative impact on our students that lead to absenteeism or them transferring to other schools, just because they just don't have a good route to school,” she said.
Poor, Black, and brown students are more likely to rely on transit and live in transit-poor areas. Melissa Schober, a member of the Parent and Community Advisory Board, said she’s worried the bus line cuts may reinforce school segregation in Baltimore by making it even harder for those kids to get to class.
“We are denying children the right to an equitable educational opportunity because we are asking them to depend on a system which is itself not dependable,” Schober said. “We are asking them to ride transit that is not designed to support their educational needs.”
The plan would cut her child’s preferred bus route to school and present them with two complicated commute options: take a bus that would drop them over a mile from their school or take a bus that would drop them at Northern Parkway, which would require crossing a multi-lane high speed road each day.
“Neither are appropriate for our child, who is a stroke survivor and has difficulty ambulating over a long distance,” Schober said.
The cuts aren’t final just yet: the MTA will solicit public feedback on the proposal in a series of 10 virtual public hearings between Oct. 5 and Oct. 16. The 30-day public review and comment period will end Nov. 15.