Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Baltimoreans have long known the way their city’s transit is run is unusual. But it wasn’t until a new report from a Washington, DC-based transportation think tank was released last month that it became clear just how unique Baltimore’s lack of control over its transit system truly is.

According to the Eno Center for Transportation, out of the 50 largest transit agencies in the United States, only Baltimore’s transit is both governed and operated by a state agency without a board of directors — in this case, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). Other cities with state-run transit agencies, like New York and Boston, have appointed boards with at least some power to make recommendations and sometimes even veto key decisions, and also do not rely entirely on their state governments for any non-federal funding.

The result, the Eno Center concludes after comparing Baltimore’s transit system to those of three similarly sized peer cities, is that Charm City is uniquely vulnerable to the whims of each passing Maryland governor. Small wonder the city has not seen any new rail added in 23 years. The Eno Center’s report recommends three possible solutions; no matter how, the report’s authors make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that reform is sorely needed.

Talking about “transit governance” might not make you popular at cocktail parties, but the concept is key to understanding how well a transit system actually serves the people using it.

“The way that transit is governed can determine how well transit service responds to a community or a region’s needs,” said Brianne Eby, a senior analyst for the Eno Center and co-author of the report, along with Eno Center Vice President of Policy and Finance Paul Lewis. “Whether the population’s being served, whether it reaches the appropriate geographic areas, and so on and so forth.” Eby and Lewis conclude in their report that Maryland’s current transportation governance structure does not meet those needs.

While the report notes that the MTA’s parent agency, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), does have some governing boards embedded within it, “they are controlled by the [Maryland] secretary [of transportation], and thus the governor.” And even compared to its peer agencies within MDOT, the MTA has significantly less independent decision-making authority. For example, three other agencies under MDOT’s umbrella — the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA), which controls the state’s toll facilities, the Maryland Port Administration, and the Maryland Aviation Administration — are each governed by advisory boards or commissions chaired by Maryland Secretary of Transportation Gregory Slater. MTA, on the other hand, is governed by a single administrator who reports directly to the secretary. This arguably puts the MTA at a significant disadvantage when it routinely has to compete with all of MDOT’s other agencies for funding, especially the State Highway Administration.

Even when the MTA is able to secure funding to push necessary projects through, the lack of an appointed board means the governor and secretary of transportation can significantly alter or outright halt those projects without any outside approval or review required — most notoriously, Governor Larry Hogan’s 2015 cancellation of the Red Line, a light rail line that was meant to connect East and West Baltimore.

Baltimore's Red Line was in the works for more than a decade before Gov. Larry Hogan squashed the plan in 2015. Image by Maryland Transit Administration.

The report also notes that because MDOT and MTA are responsible for the whole state, Baltimore often has to compete with the Washington metropolitan region and other parts of the state for funding. Another issue: the long amount of time usually needed to launch major transit projects (typically 5-10 years) don’t match up very well with the relatively short terms of Maryland’s governors (a maximum of eight years per governor) or their appointees. As leadership turns over, projects are often altered, mothballed, or outright scrapped just as they’re finally getting off the ground.

“Transit investments of the size that we’re talking about don’t happen in a four-year or eight-year political cycle but rather, sadly it takes a decade or more to go ahead and see them through in practice,” said Joe McAndrew, Vice President of Transportation for the Greater Washington Partnership, which jointly commissioned the Eno Center’s report along with the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

A menu of solutions to Baltimore’s transit governance problems

The Eno Center report offers three different potential solutions to the flaws in Baltimore’s transit system, all partially based on the “peer cities” it includes as case studies: Boston, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis.

The first, and least expensive, of these three options for transit reform is to “authorize transit oversight boards with limited powers to oversee and inform state-decision making.”

In this scenario, the current structure of the MTA would remain the same, but three new boards would meet regularly to provide “guidance, transparency, and input on major decisions.” A “Central Maryland Regional Transit Advisory Board,” with members appointed by each jurisdiction’s mayor or county executive, would focus on MTA’s “core services”: LocalLink and CityLink buses, Light Rail, and Metro Subway. A gubernatorial-appointed “Maryland Commuter Services Board” would focus on the MTA’s Commuter Bus and MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter) service. Finally, for larger state transit projects, especially those outside of or extending beyond Central Maryland, a “Large Capital Project Construction Board” appointed by the jurisdictions involved in each project could advise on larger undertakings like the Metro Purple Line. The most obvious advantage of this model is that it would add more local perspectives and require the least amount of new funding.

The second option presented in the Eno Center’s report is to install a state-level board of directors for MTA. In this scenario, MTA’s basic structure would otherwise remain the same (as would MDOT’s), but the governor would appoint seven to 13 board members to govern the transit agency, serving staggered four-to-six year terms, with the Secretary of Transportation serving as the board’s chair. The board would have to include at least some representatives from local jurisdictions and would have policy-making power for the entire agency. Eby and Lewis specifically cite the MassDOT (Massachusetts Department of Transportation) Board, which controls Boston’s main transit agency, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and the Metropolitan Council governing transit in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota, as potential models for a Maryland MTA board. The biggest catch here is its feasibility: Creating a board of directors for the MTA would require state legislation, and the governor might not be willing to cede so much power to a board, even one composed of members of their own choosing. On the plus side, however, the proposal would not require any significant changes to funding or increases in funding contributions from local governments.

The third option presented by the Eno Center, and the one which most closely mirrors what the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition and several other transit advocacy groups, activists, and politicians have called for, is to “form a new Baltimore metro transit authority with local and state funding and board representation.” This approach would undoubtedly be the most expensive as it would require several jurisdictions, all of whom currently contribute nothing to MTA’s funding, to vastly increase the amount of money they put into funding transit (although even in this scenario, the state would still provide the majority of funding to support the regional transit authority’s capital and operational expenses). This would be enforced by the state making a legal commitment to provide annual dedicated funding to a “Greater Baltimore Transit Authority (GBTA)”, much as it does now for WMATA.

MTA buses cross the agency's Light RailLink tracks in downtown Baltimore. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

The GBTA would be its own independent agency, separate from state government, but MTA would remain a part of MDOT and continue to operate commuter rail, commuter bus, and other large projects like the Purple Line. Aside from being fully contained within one state, such an arrangement would likely look similar to the one Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties have now used for over half a century for WMATA.

The Eno Center suggests a GBTA board with a mix of local and state officials, but many other key details would likely be open to negotiation. For example, while Baltimore City and Baltimore County would certainly be part of the GBTA’s jurisdiction, and Anne Arundel, Howard, and Harford Counties would also likely be members, Eby and Lewis suggest the possibility of allowing other counties, such as Carroll and Queen Anne’s, to “opt in”, much as Metro Transit, the Minneapolis area’s main transit provider, does for its constituent counties.

Additionally, the report suggests that the GBTA’s jurisdiction could be structured to only cover the “most congested urban areas” of certain counties, much as Sound Transit in the Seattle area focuses on the most densely populated parts of King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties in Washington State. That kind of arrangement could prove appealing for Harford County — a conservative-leaning county with rapidly increasing growth in areas like Aberdeen, Bel Air, and Havre De Grace — or Anne Arundel County, where demand for transit has been stronger in the northern half of the county.

To make any changes stick and improve the Baltimore region’s transit situation, several experts agreed that increasing local jurisdictions’ financial contributions and highlighting the economic impact of any potential transit reform is key.

“Even regardless of creating a Greater Baltimore Regional Transit Authority, even if you can get some local buy-in financially, with some hybrid [model], I think that’s going to be just a really important thing,” said Jerome Horne, a Baltimore native who now works as a “Ridership Experience Specialist” for Indianapolis’ main transit agency, IndyGo. But however it chooses to go about it, Horne said the most important thing is that Baltimore does actually change how its transit is run.

“The status quo is simply not sustainable or working for the needs of the citizens in Baltimore in particular.”

And while Eby made it clear that neither she nor Lewis are advocating for a specific project like the Red Line, changing the structure of how Baltimore’s transit is governed to give the region more of an investment, both organizationally and financially, could go a long way towards making sure such projects are actually completed and successful, as well as enabling bigger and better projects elsewhere.

“I think an argument could be made that if there was more local funding going to locally specific transit in the Baltimore region, then that would free up the state to then prioritize larger capital projects that serve maybe more than just that region,” Eby said.

Correction: A previous version of this article was missing language referencing the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition.

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.