Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

It took a month-long delay in voting, numerous mishaps from ballot vendors and both the state and local Boards of Elections, and 13 days of counting after the polls had closed but with all the votes finally being certified on June 15, but the 2020 Baltimore City Elections are finally over.

True there’s technically still the general elections in November, which should include referendums on quite a number of significant amendments to the city’s charter. But in a city that hasn’t elected a Republican Congressmember since 1992, a Republican City Councilmember to a single seat since 1938, or any Republican to any citywide office at all since 1963, the Democratic Party primaries have almost invariably functioned as the real elections.

But what impact will this past election and the city’s chosen legislators have on Baltimore’s current transit and future system?

Image by Koritsi-ischys / CC BY-SA licensed under Creative Commons.

An election of change

And while the Baltimore City Council itself didn’t see quite as much turnover in 2020 as it did in 2016 (only five of the Council’s 14 Districts voted for new representation this time, down from eight in 2016), Baltimoreans more than made up for that at the top of the ballot, flipping over all three of their top citywide positions in a single election for the first time since 1959, with the election of Brandon Scott, Nick Mosby, and Bill Henry as their new Mayor, City Council President, and Comptroller, respectively.

It’s a dramatic shift of direction for Baltimore. Scott came from behind to overtake controversial former Mayor Sheila Dixon in the vote total and oust Bernard “Jack” C. Young to become the city’s youngest Mayor ever at just 36 years old.

This is a little over a year after the scandal-plagued resignation of Catherine Pugh as Mayor elevated Young to Council President and paved the way for Scott’s colleagues on the City Council to elect him Council President. Mosby, himself a former mayoral candidate, gave up his seat in Maryland’s House of Delegates for the chance to replace Scott as Council President.

And in perhaps the most remarkable upset on the ballot, Henry, the three-term incumbent for the Council’s Fourth District in North Baltimore, bested Joan Pratt, Pugh’s former business partner, to become the city’s top financial watchdog, ending Pratt’s 25-year run as Comptroller.

But while it’s one of the most important issues for Baltimore City going forward and ties into several of its other most pressing concerns, such as education, development, the environment, public safety, public health, and the economic and medical devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, transportation was still mostly overlooked in the media coverage during the run-up to the election in favor of some of those aforementioned other issues. So now that the dust has finally cleared, let’s examine just what June 2’s results actually mean for the future of Charm City Transit.

A rail station in Baltimore by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Will a new mayor bring new urgency to transit issues?

Brandon Scott’s win in this race was a close one, with just 29.6% of the electorate pushing him to victory, if not the smallest winning Democratic primary percentage ever in Baltimore City, at least the smallest since 1963, the last time its winner didn’t also triumph in the general election, and just 3,145 votes ahead of Dixon, the second-place finisher.

Scott pulled out his win in part because of endorsements from unions like all three local chapters of the SEIU (Service Employees Industrial Union), UNITE HERE, the Baltimore Teachers Union, and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) as well as the political arms of nonprofits like Clean Water Action, the Maryland Sierra Club, Jews United For Justice, and Baltimore’s most prominent bike advocacy group, Bikemore (Not to mention perhaps the most coveted endorsement of all: the Baltimore Sun).

Scott’s pledged to reduce his own power as mayor by hiring a Chief Administrative Officer to help coordinate the various agencies Baltimore’s “strong mayor” system gives him absolute power over, as well as shrinking the size of the Board of Estimates, the body charged with approving all of Baltimore City’s contracts, which the Mayor currently dominates by virtue of being able to appoint two of its members, the Director of Public Works and the City Solicitor.

Even so, and despite control of the agency which runs most buses and trains in the city, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), still lying with Maryland’s Governor, Larry Hogan, Scott will still hold a great deal of power over the direction of Baltimore’s transit.

For starters, the Mayor directly controls the Baltimore City Department of Transportation (BCDOT), which runs the city’s free, largely downtown-based bus system, the Charm City Circulator, as well as one of its water taxi services, the Harbor Connector.

And not only does BCDOT maintain Baltimore City’s “local” streets, unlike any other county in the state, it also controls its state and federal routes and two of the six Interstate-designated highways within its boundaries: I-70 and I-83.

During his campaign for Mayor, Scott pledged to create a “TransitStat” data program to monitor MTA and Circulator bus reliability and expressed interest in fully implementing Baltimore’s underdeveloped 2017 Separated Bike Lane Network Plan, as well as creating a Regional Transit Authority.

He seemed especially interested in expanding the Circulator, which since its launch in 2010 has largely been limited in its routes to the Inner Harbor and the city’s more affluent “White L”, much further into Baltimore’s more neglected “Black Butterfly” (so named because of their distinctive shapes), especially what he called the “transportation deserts of West Baltimore.”

During his eight years (2011-2019) as the Councilmember for Baltimore’s Second District up in the northeasternmost corner of the city and his current stint as Council President, Scott was also responsible for two bills which might give a good indication of how he’ll handle transit as Mayor. A 2018 ordinance creating an “Equity Assessment Program” for Baltimore City to monitor how much the city’s practices, including those of BCDOT, did or didn’t measure up to certain standards of equity and a more recent bill to require BCDOT to set aside street space for pedestrians and cyclists in every City Council district for the remainder of Baltimore’s COVID-19 State of Emergency. The latter bill was passed unanimously by the City Council last month and is still waiting for Mayor Young’s signature or veto.

A bikeshare docking station in Baltimore by charmcity123 licensed under Creative Commons.

The incoming Council President leaves clues about his transportation agenda

As the head of Baltimore’s City Council, its only at-large seat, a member of the city’s Board of Estimates, and first in line to take over if anything happens to the Mayor, the Council President is one of Baltimore City’s most powerful titles, if still often slightly less high-profile than the Mayor.

They hold tremendous influence over the shape of the city’s budget, alongside the Mayor, they help lobby the Maryland General Assembly for the city’s interests in and out of session, they can make or break the fate of any bills their colleagues try to pass through the City Council, and they have a great deal of power over which Councilmembers sit on particular committees, as well as deciding which committees the City Council will even have to begin with.

But while this year’s City Council President race was the closest since 2007 and the first one where the sitting Council President didn’t run for reelection since Lawrence Bell’s unsuccessful attempt to run for Mayor left the seat wide open for Sheila Dixon in 1999, it still didn’t get nearly as much attention as the Mayoral contest.

Instead, Nick Mosby rode a combination of name recognition from his time representing the Seventh District on the City Council and the 40th District in the House of Delegates, his wife Marilyn’s role as Baltimore City’s State’s Attorney, and endorsements by the Baltimore Sun and the country’s oldest family-owned Black newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, to the election’s largest margin for a citywide candidate, over 11 percentage points ahead of City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed.

Compared to Scott and Henry, Mosby’s transportation vision was a little harder to piece together. He did serve on the City Council’s Land Use and Transportation Committee from 2015 to 20116 and during his time in the House of Delegates, he was often involved in transportation-adjacent issues. For example, he was one of the key players in the recent yearlong successful effort to keep the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course and redevelop the 150-year old racetrack for a wider range of uses and during his final legislative session in Annapolis this past winter, he introduced (an admittedly unsuccessful) bill to end state renewable energy subsidies for trash incinerators like the infamous Wheelabrator plant in South Baltimore. And Mosby did release an eight-page transportation plan when he ran for Mayor in 2016 which called for “working with state officials to place GPS trackers on buses” (an idea the MTA adapted in 2018 when it partnered with the popular Transit app) and funding a “city-run rapid East-West bus line.”

But Mosby was also the only major candidate for Council President not to respond to Bikemore’s “I Bike I Vote” questionnaire and had to miss the sole transportation forum held for the race in order to defend a bill in Annapolis back in March.

That does leave one major source of clues as to how he might approach transportation issues as Council President, his response to a question on transportation the Greater Baltimore Committee, an influential group of local civic movers and shakers, asked in its own election questionnaire

In it, Mosby cites developing Baltimore City’s first “strategic” transportation plan of its own (as opposed to those developed by the State of Maryland) since 2004, improving traffic flow, “implementing Transportation Demand Management strategies” for congested streets, and “finding sustainable, fiscally responsible funding streams” to expand the Charm City Circulator as his top transportation policy priorities.

Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Will City Council members increase transit initiatives?

While it remains to be seen how the City Council will work with Mosby compared to how it’s worked with Scott or Young, the rest of the City Council is at least somewhat clearer, thanks to all nine of the incumbents who ran for reelection this year winning their respective races, including two of the three current members of the Council’s Transportation Committee: its chair, Ryan Dorsey, and former DDOT planner John Bullock.

The one member of the Transportation Committee not returning is Seventh District Councilmember Leon Pinkett, who gave up the seat after one term to run for Council President and will be replaced by City Schools official James Torrence.

Torrence is a regular transit user who supports transit-oriented development and the City increasing “traffic calming measures such as speed bumps, traffic circles, streetscaping and green barriers”, according to his responses to Bikemore’s questionnaire.

That could prove a good match for the Seventh District, which is located in West Central Baltimore and includes four rail stations ripe for TOD: Cold Spring Lane and Woodberry on the Light Rail and Mondawmin and Penn-North on the Metro Subway, as well as much of the Big Jump.

Also joining Torrence on the City Council this December are Mark Conway who narrowly won the race to replace Henry in the Fourth District, Phylicia Porter who replaces retiring 25-year incumbent Edward Reisinger in the 10th District, located in the far southwestern corner of the city, Antonio Glover, who succeeds Shannon Sneed in the East Baltimore-based 13th District after her unsuccessful run for Council President, and, a little closer to the city center, Odette Ramos, who will replace four-term incumbent Mary Pat Clarke in the 14th District.

Conway served as Deputy Director of Baltimore’s data-based government accountability program, CitiStat, under former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and more recently as Executive Director of an environmental nonprofit, the Baltimore Tree Trust, both experiences with some relevance to transit policy.

Porter, a healthcare advocate and consultant, cited dedicated bus lanes and priority traffic signals for transit, among other transportation issues, as priorities during her campaign and figures to bring an interesting perspective on the connection between public health and public transit to City Hall. Glover, a Community Liaison in the State’s Attorney’s Office, was the only member of Dixon’s unofficial eight-member slate of endorsed candidates to win his City Council seat. Still, his campaign website does call for working to ensure more frequent MTA buses and more routes, as well as a Regional Transit Authority for Baltimore.

Finally, Ramos, who previously served as Executive Director of the Community Development Network of Maryland and will be the city’s first Latinx Councilmember, also calls for a Regional Transit Authority on her website, where she also mentions having worked on a stalled piece of state legislation to study that idea, as well as calling for the City Council to create its own Sustainability Committee.

It should also be noted that in addition to Dorsey and Bullock, the nine incumbents reelected to the City Council last month include two other noted transit advocates, Zeke Cohen of the First District in Baltimore’s southeast corner, and Kris Burnett of the Eighth District in the westernmost part of the city.

An intersection with light rail by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

The city, the comptroller, and “Complete Streets”

Comptroller wouldn’t be a particularly contested or high-profile race most years, any more so than Clerk of the Circuit Court or Register of Wills or really any of the miscellaneous positions Baltimore City votes on in non-Presidential election years except State’s Attorney and maybe Sheriff. This was not most years.

To be sure, Comptroller actually is a fairly powerful position, if also a rather eclectic one. The Comptroller holds one of five seats on Baltimore City’s Board of Estimates and as an independent elected office is one of only two Board members outside the Mayor’s control.

At least for now, they control the Municipal Post Office, which handles the mail for all Baltimore City agencies, the city’s Municipal Telephone Exchange, and for some bizarre reason, the Office of the Harbor Master. They also control Baltimore City’s Department of Real Estate and most importantly, the Department of Audits. The Comptroller has the power to order audits of pretty much any Baltimore City agency, including major departments like Transportation, Recreation & Parks, and Public Works, and even to audit state-controlled but city-operated agencies like oh, say….the Baltimore Police Department.

In short, the Comptroller has more access to information about Baltimore City’s government than any of its other elected officials and has the power, if used, to be as much of a watchdog for the finances and smooth operations of the city as the Inspector General is for misbehavior by City employees. That power has not been used.

For a city official who ran unopposed in every election from 1995 to 2011 and crushed her 2016 opponent with over 78% of the vote, Joan Pratt has garnered a lot of attention over the past year and a half, very little of it positive.

There’s the still-ongoing US Department of Labor investigation of her for wage and hour practices. There’s the Baltimore City Inspector General’s report which condemned her for voting, as part of the Board of Estimates, to sell 15 City-owned lots to the church whose board she sits on, Bethel A.M.E., for just $15.

And of course, there’s 2 Chic Boutique, the mysteriously rarely open consignment shop in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Pigtown she co-owned with then-Mayor Catherine Pugh before it turned out to at least partially be a money-laundering front for Pugh’s infamous “Healthy Holly” scheme.

But besides not generating so many negative headlines, the biggest impact of Henry replacing Pratt as Comptroller, and the one with the most implications for Baltimore’s transit, is his willingness to actively shine a spotlight on the office and its potential impact for the city.

Henry’s come out in support of working with the City Council to bring participatory budgeting to Baltimore, reinstituting the Baltimore Community Survey to gather more feedback about what is and isn’t working in City government, including transit, not only conducting more frequent audits of City agencies but actually releasing them in a timely fashion, and creating a publicly viewable online database of City audits, with “better public transit” singled out as one area he especially wants the Department of Audits to focus on.

That could prove especially helpful for better implementing Baltimore’s Complete Streets legislation and the online database of City audits would be a far cry from the current setup in the Comptroller’s Office, which, despite Pratt’s denials, I can confirm does indeed still use typewriters to write up its weekly spending summaries. Henry also wants to use the Comptroller’s Office to help monitor and compile data on the city’s most dangerous intersections, traffic-wise.

The bottom line is that while many, many, many unknowns still remain about the future of Baltimore’s transit: whether it involves a Regional Transit Authority, how long certain of its highways, like I-83 will continue to function in their current form, what new rail or bus service it does or doesn’t add, how it adapts to climate change and COVID-19, what roles Baltimore Penn Station and the B&P Tunnel play in that future, and some questions remain about exactly which stances its elected officials will take on those subjects, the overall potential for those officials to shape the answers to those questions, and shape them for good, is much, much stronger than it’s been in a very long time.

Correction: Scott pledged to hire a Chief Administrative Officer, not a City Manager, as was incorrectly stated in the original version of this article.

Alex Holt is a New York state native, Maryland transplant, and freelance writer. He lives in Mt. Washington in Baltimore and enjoys geeking out about all things transit, sports, politics, and comics, not necessarily in that order. He was formerly GGWash's Maryland Correspondent.