The 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly control the purse strings for Baltimore public transit, but state Del. Robbyn Lewis believes she’s the only member who is car free and one of very few who rely on transit as a primary means of transportation.
As a lawmaker representing southeast Baltimore City, she was concerned that major decisions about city transit happen a 45-minute drive — or two-hour-plus transit ride — away in Annapolis, and that so few of her colleagues had even ridden a Baltimore bus. So she organized a ride.
“I want them to leave here and remember what it feels like to move around as so many of our constituents do — on foot, on the bus and on rail — so that when we get to Annapolis and we’re working on policy we make better policy decisions that are grounded in deep understanding of the impact of our policy decisions,” Lewis said as she led roughly three dozen lawmakers and state officials across the intersection of President and East Fayette streets.
They included 18 members of the General Assembly or their staffers, Baltimore City Department of Transportation employees and MTA Administrator Holly Arnold.
The first time Lewis organized what she dubbed a Baltimore transit tour in 2021, only one of her General Assembly colleagues joined her. This year, she was encouraged by the strong showing from different parts of the state, including delegates from Baltimore and Montgomery counties.
“People who take transit, they don’t have lobbyists. … They are too busy getting to work on the bus. Someone needs to stand up for them,” Lewis said.
That’s because buses showing up late aren’t just an inconvenience for people running errands or heading to Camden Yards, Lewis said. For the transit-dependent, it could mean getting fired for being late to work or missing a critical doctor’s appointment.
So it was only fitting that the tour had a couple of hiccups.
The group met at Mondawmin, one of the city’s largest transit hubs, at 11 a.m. Oct. 12 with plans to take the subway into downtown and then walk to a meeting at DOT headquarters. But, right around 11 a.m., a radio transmission issue that disrupted communication between train cars forced the Metro SubwayLink line to suspend service and close Metro stops.
It also meant one of Lewis’ constituents, who would later give a presentation to the lawmakers, and a Baltimore Banner reporter left waiting at one of the Metro stations couldn’t join the start of the tour.
“I think it really shows the importance of funding and maintaining our system in a state of good repair,” Arnold said.
So the group hopped on a CityLink Navy bus instead, using it to get downtown, where the group continued the tour on foot.
For Lewis, it was important to highlight the pedestrian aspect of transportation, because walking to and from a transit stop is an integral part of any trip and because Baltimore has lagged in making meaningful connection points between transit modes, often forcing riders to walk from one stop to another.
“We saw a [car driver] almost hit a cyclist who had the right of way. … We saw people in wheelchairs trying to cross President Street,” Lewis said of the walk downtown. “I hope [state lawmakers] remember the feeling in their bodies of the lack of safety.”
The focus on pedestrian safety struck Del. Nick Allen of eastern Baltimore County. He’s taken interest in Baltimore City’s Complete Streets ordinance, part of a larger movement to design and redesign roadways to prioritize pedestrian and cyclist safety over car speeds. Lewis has been a vocal Complete Streets advocate in the State House, championing a bill passed years ago that allocated some speed camera revenue to funding Complete Streets.
“A lot of these things translate to the county too. … We have a lot of thoroughfares and such where pedestrians tend to be forgotten,” Allen said.
“The only people who use buses and transit in our part of the county are people who have to. There’s not a lot of people choosing to use it,” Allen said of his constituents. “I’m really interested in what we can do to make [transit] work for people more so it’s a more appealing option for everybody.”
Lewis and other transit advocates recognize that the winds are in their favor. Nationwide, decision-makers are more transit-friendly than ever, making record levels of investment in infrastructure upgrades and expansion.
This month, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg touted the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law at a Baltimore appearance as a generational investment in new public transit. The $1 trillion-plus bill has already provided funding to Baltimore projects, from the track upgrades happening at Penn Station to dedicated bus lanes being installed throughout the city.
“We have so many of the ingredients to get great transit done right now,” Lewis said. She, Allen and others think the General Assembly needs to get onboard.
Lewis wants to start with low-hanging fruit. Building on previous legislation she helped to pass authorizing enforcement of Baltimore’s dedicated bus lanes, she wants to expand enforcement statewide, allowing police to ticket drivers who drive or park in the dedicated lanes and slow buses down.
Bigger policy initiatives are getting more traction, too.
Advocates in Baltimore City have long questioned why the city doesn’t have local control over transit funding. A 2022 bill to study the issue and form a commission to make recommendations passed both houses but was vetoed by then-Gov. Larry Hogan.
So the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a federally mandated coalition of local public and private sector leaders that studies big issues, moved forward with the study itself. Top on the list of final recommendations was establishing a Baltimore regional transit commission.
Though Lewis does not plan to spearhead any such bill, she said she would support one. Other transit advocates lauded the idea as a way to prevent sweeping unilateral decisions, such as Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line to connect East and West Baltimore. Gov. Wes Moore has since revived the project.
And the Red Line was on many lawmakers’ minds as they crossed President Street headed for DOT’s downtown office. They got caught in the median between the on/off ramps for Interstate 83 and had to wait out another round of traffic.
“We’re anxiously awaiting the reports on the Red Line and how we’re going to make sure we are as fiscally responsible while also being as transparent and responsible for ensuring that people have free movement across our city east and west,” said Del. Malcolm Ruff, a Baltimore native, as he waited for the crosswalk signal on the other side of President Street.
Though riding the bus was nothing new for Ruff, he conceded it’s been a while since he relied on it. He found Lewis’ transit tour productive, both in engaging daily riders and seeing how the system runs.
“In order to make thoughtful decisions about how we are going to create policy that’s going to best move our state and our city forward, you gotta make sure we see things from all perspectives,” he said. “I want to be able to go back to that committee and say, ‘These are the things that my people need in Baltimore because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.’”
And Allen, the Baltimore County delegate, was ready to talk Red Line, too. He wants to see it built with the opportunity for expanding service all the way to Sparrows Point, which he referred to as a regional economic hub.
Said Allen: “To have a transit line that runs from Security to Sparrows Point would be an absolute game changer for the county and the city.”
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.
This article has been updated to correct the number of members of the Maryland General Assembly.