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After a nearly yearlong service disruption that reduced the frequency of its trains, the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration restored regular weekday light rail service earlier this spring and brought on more operators.

Yet state data shows that while on-time performance metrics have begun to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, the number of light rail riders dropped off earlier this year, the most recent MTA data shows. Meanwhile, ridership on most other forms of public transit has increased over the same period.

What might explain the slump? Promoters of public transit say it’s possible that the state transit service has burned a bridge with those who rely on it after so many months of service changes — one that might not be easily mended.

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“Riders need service that is frequent and reliable, and if you sacrifice frequency, you haven’t given riders what they need,” said Brian O’Malley, the president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group. “That speeds a downward spiral where planned service cuts send a signal to folks that they’re disinvesting. … which then makes it harder to make the case for investment and improvement.”

Maryland’s light rail system, a north-south artery stretching from Anne Arundel County to Baltimore County, is one arm of a disjointed regional transportation portfolio that many say has gone too long without substantial upgrades. It has been criticized in recent years for its connectivity and dependability problems, and critics say assets and personnel were deprioritized during the eight-year tenure of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

The Hogan administration also has been fiercely criticized for canceling the consequential Red Line project in 2015 that would have filled a transit void from Western Baltimore County to the city’s east side. Hogan called it a “wasteful boondoggle,” and went on to redirect state money planned for the project to highway development in the suburbs and in rural communities.

Over the last year, Baltimore Banner readers have noted the residual effects that stem from the past year’s service disruptions to the light rail — ranging from arriving late to work to being stranded at night after Orioles games at Camden Yards. As part of our reader-inspired series, we spent an afternoon riding the light rail to see for ourselves why ridership may be experiencing a downturn.

What we saw

On a hot June weekday, John Hendricks stood in the sun waiting for the train at the Mount Royal light rail station. The last two had been too packed for him to board with his bike, which he uses as part of his commute to the city from his home in Lutherville.

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Most of the time, the trains get him where he needs to go on time. But on this particular day, Hendricks acknowledged feeling frustrated by the long waits. “It’s too crowded,” he acknowledged shortly after 3:30 p.m., and the signs indicating the arrival of the next trains weren’t giving an accurate read.

Several riders pointed out other problems plaguing their experiences that day, including broken train doors, slow speeds and service outages requiring some riders to take a free “bus bridge” to complete their trips. Others noted feeling unsafe while waiting at light rail stops at night. And at no point on three different rail trains did operators ask to see proof of ticket purchases, which could be interfering with the agency’s data collection and minimizing revenues.

But not all the feedback was negative. Maya Williams, who takes the light rail to commute to her job in Timonium from her home in Gwynn Oak, said she actually prefers it to other modalities. “It’s more spacious, more calm,” Williams said while riding northbound in a mostly empty car.

Still, the commute to her new job requires her to take a subway train to get to the light rail, which adds extra time to her nearly hour-long commute. “It doesn’t take too long, but it does take a minute to go where I need to go,” she said.

Transit activists said the light rail system has potential to revolutionize how people get in and out of the city and its surrounding suburban counties — but ridership may continue to suffer until substantial improvements to service and accessibility are made. Beefing it up could also help the Baltimore region win more bids for large events, such as the World Cup, which it lost out on in the past, at least partly due to the lackluster transit options. The city also lost out on a bid for a proposed Amazon headquarters in 2015, with transit cited as some as a contributing factor.

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“It’s not a system, it’s a line, and it doesn’t connect to anything,” said Bakari Height, a transit equity organizer at the Takoma Park-based Labor Network for Sustainability. “There’s a huge lack of transit-oriented development at these stations.”

Height said the elimination of the Red Line project further squandered the potential to catalyze development on the city’s east and west sides. “The Red Line would be that point of connection,” he said. “It was a huge slap in the face for Baltimore residents and surrounding areas.”

On his own trips on the light rail, Height said the trains have been delayed, slow-moving throughout the city and unpredictable. He prefers the local bus, which, to be sure, comes with its own baggage.

“These rail lines are way past their limits and need to be replaced,” Height said. “It feels like ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ always about to break down.”

What’s next?

Relief to light rail users could be on its way.

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Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, who took office in January, said Thursday that the state would relaunch the effort to build the Red Line, starting with an update to an environmental study necessary to qualify for federal funding. Moore hasn’t said whether the Red Line would be composed of rail, bus or subway lines, and it could take years to actualize.

Still, it’s a step forward for transit supporters who have been calling for such an east-west connection for the better part of two decades.

“It connects people from A to B, but it’s so much larger than that,” state Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner ahead of the governor’s announcement.

In his first budget, Moore proposed setting aside $500 million in unassigned money for future transportation projects. State lawmakers later whittled that down to $100 million. Wiedefeld said the state would tap at least some of that money for the environmental impact statement, which could help win federal match dollars.

Representatives from the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration declined an interview. Instead they forwarded a reporter a notice of two ongoing rail repair projects and an April news release about the restored service levels. In the release, they said staff recruitment efforts for bus and rail operators as well as mechanics were ongoing and had improved thanks to a combination of increased pay and more employment outreach. Maryland’s transit system remains among the largest in the country, they added.

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But fewer people are taking advantage of it now than they were before the start of the pandemic, state data shows. In the wake of COVID-19, fewer people are commuting to work each day. And researchers at the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute found in a 2010 to 2020 study that more city households gained private cars in the last decade. They also found that only 9% of jobs in the Baltimore region were reachable by public transit within an hour.

Don Clark has made peace with his hourlong commute. The Hampden resident commutes four days a week to Cherry Hill for work, and he recommends other riders give themselves extra time.

With the exception of evenings that coincide with Orioles games, Clark said the commute is usually simple, calm and efficient, though inclement weather, rowdy passengers and unforeseen train scheduling mishaps sometimes disrupt the flow.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” Clark said. “It’s a good service, it’s mostly reliable — I usually just tell people to pad your time.”

Even with the occasional incident, Clark said he gets what he pays for. For an all-access monthly pass for all MTA modalities, he spends $22 a week, or $88 a month.

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Baltimore Banner reporters Pamela Wood and Krishna Sharma contributed to this article.

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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