The state that often leads the pack in areas like median household income and quality of schools is nearly failing when it comes to transportation, a local advocacy organization says.

The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance just released its latest report card for the state, giving it a D+ overall, with failing grades in affordability and connectivity to jobs via transit. The policy analyst and advocacy organization dished out five C’s — the state’s highest grade this year — across 12 different areas.

“As we return to a post-COVID version of ‘normal,’ we must ask ourselves: Are we making the right choices about mobility and the environment? Are we making investments that will lead to better outcomes — or are we making the same choices that got us where we are right now? And if other regions have better grades, what can we do to realize their success?” wrote transportation alliance staff in the report card’s introductory letter.

Unlike past report cards on which the transportation alliance gave Maryland an “incomplete” grade on transit reliability, citing difficulties in comparing Maryland Transit Administration’s on-time data to transit in other cities, this year’s grade comes in hot at a D+. The transportation alliance contracted with a team of local software engineers with access to the GPS locators on MTA’s buses and trains.

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How did they determine the grades?

CMTA relied on multiple datasets, including statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau for each of the 12 graded indicators. They compared the Baltimore metropolitan area to the 19 other metro regions across the U.S. with a population between 2 million and 4 million people. The Baltimore-Columbia-Towson metro region is home to just under 3 million people.

They ranked each region from best to worst and used standardized measures, like the disposable income indicator and housing plus transportation affordability threshold, where possible.

So how’d we do?

Only 8.5% of the region’s jobs are accessible by a transit ride of an hour or less, down slightly from 9% in 2020 and 11% in 2015. Maryland ranked towards the bottom of the pack, with just 17% of jobs reachable by car in 20 minutes or less. In 2015, The New York Times reported that commute time had emerged as one of the strongest indicators for a family’s ability to escape poverty.

The report listed the same grade for state of good repair — a measure of the condition of our roads, bridges and transit system — as in 2020, citing a lack of new data from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Since 2020, record investment through the federal infrastructure bill has bolstered key transportation initiatives across Maryland. At the same time, the state has dealt with significant setbacks. Baltimore’s Metro subway shut down for multiple days in July because of an electrical fire, and its light rail service is currently suspended because of significant mechanical issues. Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld recently announced more than $3 billion worth of reductions to next year’s budget that would significantly cut state of good repair initiatives for both the Maryland Transit Administration and State Highway Administration.

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Baltimore improved slightly in a couple areas since the last report card. In 2022, the region logged two days of unsafe ozone levels as set by the Environmental Protection Agency, compared to 12 such days in 2019. Only three cities graded by the report did better — Minneapolis, Tampa and Orlando.

The percentage of adults engaging in physical activity rose by 5% since the last report. Average overall commute time dropped from 31 minutes to 28, but average commute time by transit actually rose by a minute. “Nevertheless, at 28 minutes, we are tied for the worst average commute time among our peer metro areas,” the report states.

Nearly a quarter of all workers in the Baltimore region spend at least 45 minutes commuting to work. The report defines a disconnected community as one where 1 in 5 workers commute at least 45 minutes to their jobs and the unemployment rate is at least 5%. Baltimore lagged behind all its peers in this metric with disconnected communities spread across the entire state, including in parts of the city’s Black Butterfly.

New metrics for transit reliability

This is the first year since 2015 that the CMTA hasn’t given an ‘incomplete’ in this category. It’s the first time that they say they can cite reliable data that compares Baltimore transit’s on-time performance to other regions.

ARIES for Transit, run by local software engineers and transit advocates, used the same public-facing data feeds that allow users to see real-time information for MTA buses and trains on the Transit mobile application.

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Their findings say that between July 1 and Oct. 31 of this year, just under 75% of transit vehicles were able to adhere to their daily posted schedules, putting the MTA in the bottom three of comparable regions. Baltimore significantly outpaced the last two performers, though — the Orlando metropolitan region posted 70% schedule adherence, and Cleveland only managed 46%. Portland, Oregon, fared best at 90%.

And Baltimore’s percentage comes with an asterisk. ARIES offers two additional adherence percentages — one optimistic and one pessimistic — because “nearly 20% of trips that were expected to occur based on the area’s transit schedules were missing from transit agencies’ data feeds.” That means only 80% of MTA vehicle trips on any given day actually sent out a data feed.

That 20% could be buses that got pulled from service for mechanical issues, trips that should have been driven by an operator who called out of work, or any number of potential issues, according to James Pizzurro, one of the brains behind ARIES. He said that while he cannot be certain what caused the missing trip, he can be certain that it’s missing.

You can download the report and previous CMTA report cards here.

What are officials saying about it?

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues.

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