How does Baltimore, a major city, lose the busiest part of its busiest transit system—light rail—for over a month during the busiest part of the summer, to the detriment of its bus system and the dismay of roughly 30% of residents who don’t own cars? The story raises as many questions as it answers about the fragility of the city’s transit, and its inability to manage major stressors and communicate key information.
It all starts with a sinkhole.
The series of unfortunate events
On July 10, 2019, Convention Center—the de facto light rail stop for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, one of the two main stops for Camden Yards, and one of the busiest stops in Baltimore’s Light Rail system—very abruptly went underground.
Two days earlier, a water main break beneath Howard Street had flooded much of the area around M&T Bank Stadium, where the Baltimore Ravens play. It temporarily trapped a CSX freight train several blocks north in the Howard Street Tunnel, briefly discolored much of the water in the Inner Harbor, and indirectly injured a Baltimore City Department of Transportation employee after a wall partially collapsed while he was doing electrical work underground.
Now, in the early hours of the morning, a sinkhole at the corner of Howard and Pratt Streets had emerged and enveloped a wheelchair ramp and platform. Department of Public Works crews rushed to remove the platform and ramp but before they could succeed, they collapsed into the ground. Downtown bus routes were diverted and light rail was immediately and indefinitely suspended between North Avenue and the next stop with adequate crossover placement, Convention Center’s southern neighbor, Camden Yards.
The timing couldn’t have been much worse.
Just over two weeks before the sinkhole emerged, the MTA had made the second of three legally-mandated service adjustments to its BaltimoreLink bus network to improve reliability. Danielle Sweeney, an organizer for the Central Maryland Transit Alliance, periodically tracks MTA bus frequency and reliability using the agency’s new performance dashboard. She noticed that based off of the percentage of buses marked “on-time,” most of the MTA’s downtown routes had finally started to adjust to the summer service changes when the sinkhole appeared.
“I did start to see a little tiny bit of an uptick before the sinkhole,” Sweeney said. “I was kind of seeing numbers in the 60s and 70s, and I was seeing a little tiny trend upward, and then BOOM!, reliability in the 40s, just in a couple of days. In some cases, you lost 25 or 30 points in a day or two.”
But the damage wasn’t limited to downtown Baltimore.
“One thing nobody talks about is how interconnected the routes are,” Sweeney said. “If the Navy [CityLink route] is really, really behind, that’s going to mess up people not just Downtown but with a lot of Southeast Baltimore and with a lot of West Baltimore. And the Red [CityLink route] goes from the University of Maryland Medical Center [in Midtown] to Towson and Lutherville [The northern half of Baltimore County]. And when you’ve got 50% of those buses late, that messes up a lot of service for a lot of people.”
Plus, there was already another set of light rail closures, these ones further north alongside I-83 in the Jones Falls Valley. They exacerbated the effects of the sinkhole closures far beyond parts of Pratt and Howard Streets and the six light rail stops along Howard Street: Mt. Royal/University of Baltimore, Cultural Center, Centre Street, Lexington Market, University Center/Baltimore Street, and Convention Center.
Other stops were already closed, and commuters couldn’t find the replacement bus stops
Erosion has long been a problem in and around the four stops adjacent to the Jones Falls River: Falls Road (the last light rail stop on the northern side of Baltimore County), Mt. Washington (the first light rail stop in Baltimore City heading south), Cold Spring Lane, and Woodberry (a popular stop for its proximity to the city’s popular Hampden neighborhood), especially coming out of Cold Spring Lane.
Eagle-eyed transit observers might have noticed something interesting in the Public Impacts Report posted on the MTA’s website and updated every few months. A 22-day closure (three days at Falls Road, the only one of the stops in question with enough turnaround capacity) was set to begin at those stops on July 22 to install a gabion, a type of retaining structure often used to prevent erosion. While they were at it, they would replace pedestrian crossing surfaces.
MTA Director of Media Relations Brittney Marshall said the MTA did look at the possibility of delaying the already-scheduled trackwork, but in the end, opted to stick to the original plan. “MDOT MTA evaluated alternative options for the repairs,” Marshall said, “but due to contractor availability and pre-construction work already complete, the decision was made to move forward with the repairs critical to continuing to provide safe and reliable service on the Light RailLink.”
This meant that from July 22 to August 6, when the Jones Falls segment of the line reopened a week early, every Light Rail stop between Falls Road and Camden Yards was closed. (Falls Road was also closed for the first three days to replace its track crossing points, briefly pushing one end of the closure zone 5.7 miles further north to Lutherville). It also placed further strain on the free “bus bridges” the MTA used to replace Light Rail service, buses which were likely taking away both drivers and buses from regular MTA service.
These bus bridges were absolutely essential for many commuters. There was no separate school bus fleet for the Baltimore City Public School System, and no pair of Light Rail and Metro Subway stations within a mile of each other north of Cultural Center and State Center. But you wouldn’t have understood their importance from the bus bridge “maps” on display at each light rail stop.
None of the maps listed the locations of the bus stops—even when they were as far as half a mile away from the light rail stations they were meant to replace. There was no schedule for the shuttles posted, nor any attempt to incorporate them into Transit, the bus timetable app the MTA partners with to track its usual routes. To make matters even worse, much of the closure coincided with a brutal heat wave.
Communication and traffic chaos
Baltimore’s most popular arts festival, Artscape, plus a Billy Joel concert (the first standalone concert at Camden Yards), multiple Baltimore Orioles series (some even well-attended due to promotional giveaways or popular AL East opponents), both of the Baltimore Ravens’ preseason home games, and the final gathering of Bronycon all saw massive traffic backups and delays. This was partly due to street closures, partly due to people driving who would normally use the Light Rail.
Mentions of the issues and how to deal with them on local newscasts were few and far between. Even a Baltimore Sun article announcing the return of light rail service incorrectly referred to the resumption of “Commuter service at the Camden and North Avenue stops,” omitting the six light rail stops which had closed in favor of two stops which hadn’t closed at all.
Finally, at 5 am on Sunday, August 18, after 40 days of closures and despite the absence of a fully finished northbound wheelchair ramp at Convention Center, Baltimore Light Rail service resumed on Howard Street. It lasted all of eight hours. Then a Baltimore police officer attempting to respond to a bank robbery on the University of Maryland Medical Center campus crashed into another driver on the light rail tracks at the corner of Howard and Fayette Streets, exactly halfway between the Lexington Market and University Center stops.
However, trains were delayed but not suspended, and within a few hours, service was back to something resembling normal. In Baltimore, that’s called “progress.”
Correction: The worker who was injured was a Department of Transportation employee, not Department of Public Works.