The emergency shutdown of the light rail means pain for Greater Baltimore. Riders who must adapt are experiencing delays, confusion and frustration. A colleague who was at the Convention Center Station Friday morning, about 12 hours after the Maryland Transit Administration issued a surprise announcement, described seeing a sign that read: “shuttle bus service will be in place” and riders left struggling to figure out where to go.
She saw passengers helping each other find their way and comparing what information they had about the disruption. Around 9 a.m., she did not see any MTA staff present at the Convention Center light rail station to direct people. A passenger nearby said, “This shit is crazy.”
The shutdown also means pain for those who count on light rail riders to show up. One user of the social media site X posted that he is part of a downtown small business, many of whose team members will have a hard time getting to work. He said the business provides a $74 monthly subsidy for employees who commute by transit, or by biking or walking, but questioned how he can continue to promote the program and expect employees to get to work on time. Another of my colleagues was forced to leave a meeting Friday afternoon to pick up his daughter, a Baltimore student, who had waited more than 45 minutes with many other students for the shuttle bus that was supposed to substitute for their usual light rail ride home.
The entire region experiences pain when the transit system fails. When the MTA did an emergency shutdown of the Metro subway in February 2018, regular commuters were forced to find alternate ways to get to work, and when the MTA restored service after three weeks, many did not go back. It took months for ridership to return to the levels of a month earlier. When transit riders drive instead, it increases traffic and pollution. Providing shuttle bus service pulls operators and vehicles from a bus system that does not have the capacity to shift 30-plus buses and some of its drivers from regular service to pick up slack for the light rail system. MTA has no extra capacity for emergencies.
MTA ridership has been recovering from the pandemic faster than most transit agencies in the country. But, if it dips as a result of this or other service disruptions, it will hurt Maryland’s chances to get the federal grant it needs to build the Red Line, which would be the first expansion of the transit system since the late 1990s.
The cause of the light rail shutdown is electrical and mechanical issues. The MTA light railcars are undergoing their midlife overhaul, a major refurbishment intended to prolong the life of the equipment, so it might be that there were flaws in the maintenance work or the parts provided by the contractor. But it is also a fact that the midlife overhaul is late. For light railcars that went into service in the 1990s, the midlife repairs should have been done in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Like so much necessary maintenance of Greater Baltimore’s transit infrastructure, the work is delayed. As of 2022, there was a $1.8 billion backlog of deferred state-of-good-repair needs at the MTA. That has contributed to MTA trains and buses breaking down more frequently than in most peer transit systems.
A lack of local control over funding for the MTA might be part of the problem. Of the 50 largest transit agencies in the country, Baltimore’s is the only one that is governed and operated by a state agency without a board of directors. The Maryland General Assembly intervened in 2021 by overriding Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto and enacting the Transit Safety and Investment Act, which sets minimum funding levels for MTA capital needs for several years. It was intended to stabilize the MTA by preventing further neglect and breakdowns.
The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and many partners supported that law, and our hope was that the next governor would build on that stabilization by investing in improvements such as better bus stops, more frequent service, the long-envisioned Red Line and rapid transit connecting Towson and downtown Baltimore.
But the overview of Gov. Wes Moore’s first transportation capital budget that the Maryland Department of Transportation published indicates we might see the pattern of underinvestment and breakdowns continue. Cuts to the MTA’s operating and capital budgets, including funding levels for the MTA’s capital needs, would be so severe that they would require permission from the General Assembly to defy provisions of the Transit Safety and Investment Act.
The pain experienced in Greater Baltimore this week is, unfortunately, familiar and a sign that, unless Gov. Moore leads us in a different direction, Marylanders’ ability to get where they need to go under his leadership will be no better than under Gov. Hogan.
Brian O’Malley is president & CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.