Maryland leaders talk innovative transit solutions

MD workshopMembers of the Maryland Chapter of the Local Leaders Council gather in Baltimore to discuss local transit solutions.

Transit service makes walkable urban places work better for all users, but finding affordable, flexible, scalable transit is a major hurdle for communities pursuing smart growth. The Maryland Chapter of the Local Leaders Council convened a workshop in Baltimore on November 12 to dig in to what works, considering very different solutions from three very different places.

Ten elected leaders and staff brought varying concerns to the table. Mayor Gee Williams of Berlin, MD, population 4,562, is focused on accommodating visitors. “During the last ten years we’ve become a destination community – this is now our chief economic driver. The vision we are in the early stages of discussing is how we can accommodate up to 3,000 guests in a small downtown area. We also have a challenge for our residents to access downtown services every day.”

Councilmember Alan Hew of College Park represents a community anticipating the impact of new transit-oriented developments in several locations around the University of Maryland Campus and at existing and planned Metrorail stations. “We need to start looking at local transit now instead of playing a catch-up game.”

Every participant, no matter what their current conditions or anticipated development, came to talk about how to organize, fund, and sustain new modes of transportation to supplement existing systems. While the transportation solutions under consideration were as diverse as the participants, there was a common need for more information about how to fund local transit and how to collaborate with existing transit services.

Getting customers downtown in Salisbury
In addition to a beautiful, small downtown and proximity to destinations on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the City of Salisbury’s assets include 8,700 students attending Salisbury University. To encourage more of those students to spend their money downtown, the City worked with the regional transit provider, Shore Transit, to develop evening bus service between the campus and downtown.

“It’s only two miles,” explained Laura Mitchell, Salisbury City Council Vice President, “but it’s a long two miles when you are crossing all of the barriers that we and Mother Nature have put in place.” Students who make the trip will find live music in a converted fire house, a monthly music and arts festival called Third Fridays, an award-winning microbrewery and other bars and restaurants.

The City used its limited resources strategically, according to Councilwoman Mitchell. The intention is to expose students to all that downtown Salisbury has to offer, so that “more of them will stay and grow their businesses with us.” A distinctive rubber-tired trolley stops at several locations near campus and downtown between 9 pm and 3 am Thursday through Saturday while school is in session. Total operating costs are $18,500 per semester, with $16,000 of that coming from the City and the rest from fares of $1.00 per ride. Shore Transit operates the service, using a surplus vehicle loaned by the City of Ocean City.

Downtown businesses appreciate the new customers and have asked about extending service hours into the early evening. The City would ultimately like to find funding to allow it to operate free of charge and serve additional stops.

Free circulator serves multiple markets in Downtown Baltimore
The City of Baltimore has operated the Charm City Circulator since 2010. Today, four bus routes and one water taxi connect people to jobs, education, tourist destinations, and transportation hubs throughout the downtown area. Thirty brightly painted buses ply the color-coded routes at 10 or 15-minute headways, and matching pylons make it easy to know where the buses stop.

Funding for the service comes from multiple partners. According to Ciara Willis, Transit Services Administrator for the City of Baltimore, a parking tax contributes $10.6 million annually or about 75% of operating costs. Other funding comes from the state, public-private partnerships and advertising revenue. Zero revenue comes from the farebox, and the City is working hard to continue to offer the service for free in spite of persistent deficits.

“Half of our users make less than $25,000 per year,” says Ms. Willis. “They depend on this service.” Overall, about 85% of Circulator riders live in Baltimore, and use the service to get to work, school, and medical appointments. Partnerships with the hospitals and universities whose workers depend on the service have provided some revenue, but not always enough to cover the each institution’s specific wish list for additional service.

Another consistent challenge is coordination with other transit operated by the state and by major institutions. Veronica McBeth, Baltimore’s Transit Bureau Chief explains, “This is a supplementary system in service to the City. We don’t want to be another MTA [Maryland Transit Administration] and we don’t want to be duplicative with that service.” Determining the real competitive advantage of the Circulator, and then selling that advantage to develop a sustainable funding source will be key tasks as the Circulator matures.

Bike share filling local transportation needs in College Park
College Park is a first-ring suburb of Washington, D.C. with a huge, suburban-style campus at its heart. Until recently, the location, size, and development preferences of the University have frustrated efforts to accommodate off-campus growth in more walkable, urban neighborhoods, but that is changing as town-gown interests in walkable urbanism appear to be converging in places.

On paper, College Park already has a wealth of transit service, with bus and Metrorail service provided by a regional transit agency, commuter rail service, and University-operated shuttles. Early decisions kept the Metrorail stops well away from the University Campus and existing shopping districts, so faculty, staff, and students who use Metrorail find themselves a mile from the heart of Campus. This happens to be the perfect trip length to cover by bike.

When initial plans to expand the Washington region’s existing bike share system into College Park were disrupted by the vendor’s temporary inability to provide bikes, the Council tried again. They identified an emerging vendor with a service model that was a better fit for College Park, relying more on technology and less on large bike stations. Users can leave bikes anywhere they can find a place to lock them rather than searching for an open station spot.

Going forward, the City will be working to grow the use of bike share as a transit mode by gradually expanding the number of bikes available, and by providing hand-pedaled bikes and adult tricycles that are accessible to more users. New interest in developing near the existing Metrorail stations, and increasing acceptance of higher-density mixed use student housing will increase the demand for travel in and around College Park. BIkes provide an opportunity to get everyone where they want to go with less congestion, less pollution, and more flexibility.

Local Leaders Council and Local Transportation
The presentations and discussions around local transportation needs and solutions during the workshop in Baltimore are a reminder of the vast effort and energy going into local transit innovations in communities of all sizes around the country. Working with our Maryland partner, 1000 Friends of Maryland, we hope to work more closely with our Members to identify and explain some of the most promising funding solutions, developing new tools that other members around the country can use, too.

If you have a local transportation need, question, or success story, please let us know!

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