Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on March 4, 2016.
By Donald C. Fry
In mid-June state transportation officials plan to launch a new express bus service, called Express BusLink, which they believe will better connect thousands of workers to the major job hubs that have emerged during the last two decades in the Baltimore region.
To some, June may seem like a long way off. But when it comes to rolling out a key part of a redesigned mass transit bus system, it’s really right around the corner.
That’s why it’s important for Baltimore-area companies and businesses whose employees rely on the bus system to get to and from work to weigh in now on whether the proposed new express bus network will, in fact, make it easier and faster to get to their places of employment and job hubs in and around the city.
Express BusLink will offer express bus service on a high-frequency basis during morning and evening rush hours on three new routes. The new routes will be between: Towson and White Marsh; Towson and Owings Mills; and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) and Old Court Metro Station in Northwest Baltimore.
The Express BusLink network will be the first part of the redesigned system to roll out – as noted earlier in less than four months. The MTA has not yet set the timetables and stops for each of the routes, although stops will be limited to ensure speedy trips. The MTA is currently studying the routes, bus stops, and timetables by conducting test runs. MTA officials plan to have proposed timetables and stops for each of the new routes ready for unveiling by the time of the public hearings.
Between March 21 and March 29, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) will hold a series of six public hearings at locations in the Baltimore suburbs on the plans for Express BusLink.
These hearings provide a number of opportunities for business leaders and their employees to get involved in the discussion on what they like or don’t like about this integral piece of a vast redesign of the entire Baltimore metro bus system that is being developed – the first in many years.
Express BusLink is just one component of a plan announced by Governor Larry Hogan and top state transportation officials in October to redesign the entire MTA bus network serving Baltimore City and surrounding suburbs. State officials have branded the new broader bus network plan BaltimoreLink.
On its website, the MTA says plans for a redesigned bus system to serve the Baltimore region were developed and announced because the current system is “broken,” “not unified” and it “doesn’t connect to today’s job markets.”
Whether you agree or not with that assessment, it’s prudent to periodically assess mass transit systems to ensure that they are serving workers and employers in the most effective and efficient way possible and make changes as needed.
The Greater Baltimore Committee has long supported new ideas that would provide the Baltimore region with a strategic and truly interconnected regional mass transit system – as noted in its 2013 Compact for Competivenessreport. That’s why the GBC was a strong supporter of the Red Line, the light rail line that connected major jobs hubs on the east and west sides of Baltimore that Governor Hogan has chosen to scrap.
When attending the public hearings on Express BusLink and the broader plan a key consideration to keep in mind is whether the proposed changes strategically position Baltimore for the long term as an economic engine where workers can easily get to and from jobs hubs using mass transit – as is true for cities such as Washington, D.C. and Houston.
BaltimoreLink, backed by $135 million over six years to pay for new personnel, equipment and other expenditures, has another key component that businesses and riders need to thoroughly review and critique named CityLink.
CityLink proposes 12 new high-frequency bus routes along major road arteries between job hubs, such as the Social Security and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services complexes on the west side of the city, and downtown Baltimore. Hearings on that element of the broader plan are expected by MTA to be held in October and November.
An average of 250,000 people ride MTA buses each work day, and so the proposed changes to the bus system have the potential to affect thousands of commuters who rely on bus transit each day to get to and from work.
And by extension of that consequence, the new routes and system could affect businesses, their operations, and the morale of employees. Nothing is more stressful on an employee and affects their attitude toward their employment than an inefficient commute to and from the workplace. Mobility of the workforce is an essential element of a competitive business environment.
And so it is incumbent upon Baltimore-area businesses and employers to get engaged and to urge their employees who use MTA buses to become informed about the proposed changes, attend public hearings, and participate in the dialogue about its strengths and weaknesses.
Once the routes launch and the buses start rolling this June it may not be too late to speak up, but it may be too late to make a difference.
Donald C. Fry is the President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to Center Maryland.