Should Baltimore have more control over its public transit? Should the city stop building bike lanes? What about the Red Line?

The top four mayoral candidates for next month’s Democratic primary sparred on these transportation questions and more Thursday night at a policy forum sponsored by Bikemore in Action and hosted by The Real News Network in conjunction with other transportation advocacy organizations.

A poll conducted in early April by The Baltimore Banner in partnership with Goucher College shows incumbent Mayor Brandon Scott taking a lead over former Mayor Sheila Dixon with likely Democratic voters. About 40% of voters polled said they would reelect Scott for a second term, while 32% said they would support Dixon. Perennial Baltimore City candidate Thiru Vignarajah came in third, taking roughly 11% of polled voters’ support. Businessman and entrepreneur Bob Wallace polled at 3%.

Roughly 10% of those polled remain undecided, leaving room for shuffling before next month’s Democratic primary that will ostensibly decide who takes Baltimore’s top seat through 2028.

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Four years ago, Scott, Dixon and Vignarajah struck consensus on several transportation issues at the last such policy forum, including expanding equitable access to protected bike lanes and altering and increasing service to the free Charm City Circulator. Though some of that consensus on broader issues remains, each candidate looked to distinguish themselves from the pack in different ways.

Here’s how:

1. Brandon wants to stand on business

A man wearing a suit speaks into a microphone sitting in front of a white background.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott responds to a question at the April 11 Mayoral Transportation Forum hosted by The Real News Network. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

Scott touted some of the wins during his first term, like Baltimore City bucking the regional trend of increasing roadway pedestrian and cyclist fatalities and the recent restoration of proposed cuts to statewide highway user revenues.

The incumbent painted himself as the man with the plan, the vision and the partners to get it all done.

“We know with the partnership that I have directly with the president himself, the secretary of transportation, now having a governor that believes and understands in Baltimore [what] we can get and now’s the time for us to strike on it,” said Scott, who was recently endorsed by Maryland’s U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin.

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Scott highlighted his alignment with state and federal Democrats as key to Baltimore’s success in bringing in federal grant dollars. He even played ball when Vignarajah quipped about “Brandon’s friend Pete Buttigieg,” pointing out the nearly $10 million grant Baltimore’s Complete Streets program received from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Echoing the same message he gave at this forum four years ago, Scott said he’s unafraid to do the right thing even when it’s unpopular. He said the state threatened to withhold some funds when he proposed altering one of the Circulator routes to bypass Locust Point and instead go to Cherry Hill. He also noted that some businesses in Harbor East pushed back against the recent redesign of Central Avenue that restricted traffic flow, but said it was necessary to increase pedestrian safety.

2. Sheila wants to stand on legacy

O woman speaks into a microphone sitting in front of a white background.
Former mayor and current Democratic candidate Sheila Dixon responds to a question at the Mayoral Transportation Forum hosted by The Real News Network in Baltimore on April 11, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

She started the Circulator, she was the first to pave roads with bike lanes, she made the plan to electrify the city’s fleet of cars — Dixon made it known Thursday night that she’s been here before.

“We have to make sure we have the right people in place who understand the need, because Baltimore is behind compared to a lot of cities,” said Dixon.

Dixon stressed the importance of working collaboratively not just with state and federal governments on major initiatives, but also with local universities that operate their own shuttle systems, an idea supported by others on stage as well. With the resources the city has had for the last five to 10 years, the Circulator should have already been expanded, she said.

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Dixon said there’s a need to “tighten our belt in the city,” referencing the need to be better at collecting revenue from outstanding violations from the Interstate 83 speed cameras. She also called the redesign and rebrand of Maryland Transit Administration bus routes under the administration of former Gov. Larry Hogan “disastrous,” saying the city needs to bring back some old bus stops that have moved, especially ones that provided better transit access to seniors.

Though Dixon questioned the implementation of the 28th Street road diet, saying congestion has increased, she at multiple points in the evening highlighted the need to calm traffic throughout the city.

“We need to, number one first and foremost, which is extremely frustrating to me, is we really need to calm down our traffic,” Dixon said in her response to a question about improving transportation for city youths. “We have to deal with the traffic in the city, first and foremost, because cars don’t respect pedestrians,” she later said in response to a question about the implementation of bike lanes.

3. Thiru is tired of the buzzwords

A man speaks into a microphone sitting in front of a white background.
Democratic candidate Thiru Vignarajah answers a question at the Mayoral Transportation Forum hosted by The Real News Network in Baltimore on April 11, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

“Multimodal, equity for all, we know what the buzzwords are. The question I’m going to ask consistently is, why haven’t we done those things already?” Vignarajah said early in the evening.

Vignarajah struck a spicier chord than in the same debate four years ago, at times calling out Scott and prior administrations for reneging on promises and letting buzzwords fizzle into inaction. He cited the slow progress of Baltimore DOT’s implementation of the separated bike lane network, minimal changes to the Charm City circulator and the canceled Red Line.

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“What is different today besides more money and more policies and more commissions? What makes your life commuting from one place to another better today than it was four years ago?” asked Vignarajah.

In his first 60 days in office, Vignarajah said he would run two new Circulator routes to help east-west transit access, the first step in his plan to make all city buses free within five years. He wants “door-to-door” transit for city students and, like some of the others on stage, a future Baltimore where fewer people drive personal cars and more people take transit.

Vignarajah kept coming back to accountability — he floated the idea of 100-day intervals that would include their own specific policy initiatives and goals.

“At the end of those hundred days, we’re gonna have a public forum to see what promises I kept and which ones I broke,” he said.

4. Bob wants trains, not bike lanes

A man speaks into a microphone sitting next to a plant in front of a white background.
Democratic candidate Bob Wallace answers a question at the Mayoral Transportation Forum hosted by The Real News Network in Baltimore on April 11, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

When asked about the coming Red Line, all candidates are on board for a train, not a rapid bus. No one was more direct than Wallace, though, saying multiple times that Baltimore’s transit network should be “anchored” in light rail.

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“I don’t believe that we can build a system that’s going to serve the needs of the people that is not anchored by light rail,” said Wallace.

The businessman and entrepreneur stressed pragmatism and sustainability, saying that “we need to change the paradigm” for funding transportation initiatives in a way that pays for itself. That sentiment is hard to translate into reality for public transit — candidates discussed how farebox revenue covers just a fraction of the MTA’s operating costs, a reality not unique to Baltimore.

When asked by moderator Jaisal Noor if candidates would support a “moratorium” on Complete Streets initiatives, Wallace was the only one to give a clear yes. He said that recent bike lane projects, which are often viewed as the core of the city DOT’s overall Complete Streets initiative, have raised serious questions about proper community involvement and government overstep.

“My village plan is we organize the city into villages to allow each village to dictate what kind of modal systems they want to include in their village,” Wallace said. “I think if we include the people in the communities and get that input, we’ll come up with better solutions and better outcomes.”

5. Baltimore deserves better transit

All candidates agreed that Baltimore should have more control over its transit.

As a state agency, the Maryland Transit Administration is subject to the whims of the governor more than the work of the mayor — a dynamic made abundantly clear when Hogan canceled the original Red Line light rail project in 2015. A commission is currently examining whether and how to alter that dynamic.

When asked about handing over transit responsibility to the city in the form of an authority, much like in most cities, Scott held his head high, saying he’s “the reason why we’re doing [the commission] in the first place and that’s what true leadership is about.” Vignarajah, who challenged Scott throughout the evening and bemoaned the red tape of getting things done, said the commission would already be an authority if the state and city were serious about the issue. Dixon said, “We need to create this authority tomorrow.”

“There’s so much that a mayor can do on transportation, especially with how the city controls streets and sidewalks and traffic signals,” said Brian O’Malley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, in a conversation with The Baltimore Banner after the event. “I look forward to reviewing their responses and seeing how voters digest it all.”

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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