5 Questions with … Gregory Slater

Secretary Gregory Slater

GBC: The 2022-27 Draft Consolidated Transportation Plan (CTP) was recently released. What is the most significant change from the previous CTP that will benefit the Baltimore region?

Maryland Secretary of Transportation Gregory Slater: Our Draft FY 2022-2027 CTP totals approximately $16.4 billion and focuses heavily on system preservation, delivering major projects, and planning and engineering for the future. This system-preservation focus is the most significant change from prior CTPs and will provide for better customer experiences throughout our transportation system.

In the Baltimore region, system preservation efforts include more than $500 million for upgrades to the Baltimore metro and light rail systems, converting our bus fleet to zero-emission vehicles to improve air quality in the communities we serve, upgrades to our bus service, and adding $20 million to study transit corridors prioritized in the Regional Transit Plan. Our $43 million Customer Experience Enhancement Program (CEEP) will enhance reliability, safety, accessibility, and the overall customer experience. Another significant addition in this region is substantial investment in the Port of Baltimore to provide dredge placement facilities that will keep the Port thriving. We also continue our previous commitments to deliver the Concourse A/B Connector, Southwest Airlines Maintenance Facility and baggage handling system upgrades at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport; and Baltimore Beltway improvements at I-695/I-70 (Triple Bridges) and Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO) along I-695 from I-70 to MD 43, which is being developed to reduce congestion and delay as well as increase travel reliability along this stretch of I-695.

A relatively small amount of planning money was provided in the CTP for the improvements to the Howard Street Tunnel. What is the state’s commitment to those improvements and what timetable are we looking at for completion? What are the plans for the Frederick Douglass Tunnel? 

Our commitment remains strong, and we are pleased that progress on both the Howard Street Tunnel and the B&P (now Frederick Douglass) Tunnel is being made. The Howard Street Tunnel improvements will allow for double-stack rail passage, enhance productivity at the Port of Baltimore and improve freight rail performance and capability for the entire mid-Atlantic corridor. There is a strong partnership among MDOT Maryland Port Administration, Federal Railroad Administration and CSX Transportation to deliver this project. Work is expected to begin later this year with a projected completion in late 2024.

With regard to the Frederick Douglass Tunnel replacement, Amtrak is leading the design, and we’re working closely with them to ensure MARC and local community needs are met, as well as to work toward a funding strategy for this project with our federal partners. Amtrak anticipates completing the new tunnel within the next 10 years.

MDOT is committed to making sure these two tunnels are no longer a source of bottlenecks for heavy rail movement in the Northeast Corridor and are a benefit to our infrastructure and critical operations in the future.

Adequate transportation and infrastructure are vitally important to the economic success of individuals, communities, business, and the entire Baltimore region. Without addressing transportation connection issues, efforts to bolster the business climate will fall flat. What interagency efforts are happening between the Department of Transportation, the Department of Labor, Commerce, and DHCD to ensure that transportation plans address all of these needs?

We know we need to build a transportation system that provides seamless door-to-door connectivity. We are focused on how we can increase the efficiency of our interstate system, as well as how we can improve our core service system in Baltimore. We’re also looking at what our transportation system will look like decades from now and are creating the MDOT Blueprint to identify transportation needs for future generations. The Blueprint will drive us to have an integrated system where we identify how rail can connect to highways, how bus can connect to air, etc. We are building the foundation for what tomorrow’s transportation system will be.

Partnerships with other public agencies are critical to the success of delivering transportation solutions. MDOT works closely with the Department of Housing and Community Development, Maryland Department of Planning and the Maryland Department of Commerce, and other state agencies to help strategize and implement community development initiatives such as Sustainable Communities, Main Streets, Baltimore Regional Neighborhoods Initiative, Maryland Heritage Area Authority and discretionary grant programs, among others. In turn, our partner agencies assist us in reviewing applications for federal funding under the Transportation Alternatives and Recreational Trails Programs and the MDOT Kim Lamphier Bikeways Network Program.

In Baltimore City there are a number of inner-city communities that do not have easy access to reliable, efficient public transit, such as bus and light rail, which is critical for jobs. What new major projects or improvements do you see addressing this issue if a federal infrastructure bill is passed?

We have committed more than $20 million to studying transit corridors prioritized in the Regional Transit Plan (RTP). The first two corridor studies are underway now — an east-west transit route from Bayview through downtown Baltimore to greater Ellicott City in Howard County, and a north-south transit route between Towson in Baltimore County and downtown Baltimore. These studies are a critical first step in delivering future transit needs for the Baltimore region.

In addition to the RTP corridors, that are focusing on future regional expansion, we also see a lot of benefit of investing in transit priority infrastructure — like dedicated bus lanes, transit signal priority, bus hub and shelter improvements, Wayfinding, ADA and pedestrian safety upgrades. We will continue to ensure that routes are taking people to where they need to go, when they need to go, and so we will continue to review our route schedules to make sure that they are serving our customers effectively. We are working to be able to add high-frequency limited stop service to some of the corridors that need us the most. Unfortunately, the biggest limiting factor for us in delivering the service our community deserves, is the inability to find transit operators. We have and will continue to actively recruit for these roles, because we know how important reliable transit is for our customers. From an overall core bus standpoint, our goal right now is to achieve at least 80% On-Time Performance with only 1% cancellation due to bus operator absences.

Know that we will continue to push to provide better overall transit services for our community. At the end of the day, we need to ensure our current services are safe, comfortable, accessible, and efficient. We are making a significant investment in the current CTP and have additional projects in the pipeline if additional funding is available.

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council recently completed a study on potential future options for regional governance and funding of mass transit in the Baltimore region. One thing that came out of this study is a disconnect with transit operating from a state level and the inability of local jurisdictions to adequately influence planning and operation decisions. Whether or not a new structure is adopted, has MDOT and MDOT MTA entertained the idea of allowing local jurisdictions more involvement at the planning level, so that local needs are addressed? What might this look like?

We recognize that collaboration and partnership with local jurisdictions is key to improving transit. Local jurisdictions control decisions about land use and zoning, so maintaining an open dialogue when shaping transportation systems is essential. Tapping into community knowledge and priorities can only make transit projects better for Marylanders. A good example of that direct coordination is the Regional Transit Plan, which brought all parties, including local jurisdictions, to the table in evaluating the existing and future transit system serving the Central Maryland Region. With that plan finalized, we are continuing those conversations as we take action on the recommendations generated from that effort. For instance, we are currently developing Regional Transit Plan Corridor Studies in coordination with local jurisdictions to evaluate how we could improve transit at a micro-level within certain identified areas. As we move forward, we will continue to bring folks to the table at every level to ensure that transit systems are best serving our community.

“5 Questions with …” is a monthly feature in which we ask a key figure in the Maryland legislative arena five questions about policy goals from past and future sessions.

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