Hi Jason,

I totally agree with you on the “more money helps, but don’t expect much” messaging being both a) true and b) not a great story to tell! And I also appreciate your point about the sheer number of school boards not only contributing to the problem of just having too many elected positions, but that there is not enough talent to go around. I suspect that Americans react to poor governance by adding even more oversight (further diluting the talent pool!) rather than cutting the number of elected positions, leading to even worse governance and on and on in a negative feedback loop.

Since I may only have time for one more of your responses, I did want to get your thoughts on mass transit given your interest there. You may know this, but for outside readers: I’ve commuted via MARC train to DC for nearly 10 years. When I started working in DC, that was 4 days a week in the DC office (1 WFH), gradually moving to 3 days a week (2 WFH), then the pandemic (full WFH), and over the past 18 months, roughly 1 day a week in office. Just this week, I received the announcement that our DC office would close and I will be full-time WFH beginning in December. Remote work is its own interesting issue, though I’ll briefly say that I worked remotely for Brown University while working in Iowa for nearly 5 years in 2009-14, and it was really tough. However, the changes in technology, company acceptance, and the sheer percentage of remote co-workers has really made a tremendous positive difference in my work life.

OK, so back to mass transit. I see, on the one hand, mass transit enthusiasts (with whom I sympathize) discuss all the benefits of robust options, and being clear about the need for increased transit frequency to encourage more riders. I read recently about the potential revival of the Red Line in Baltimore, which would finally connect the western and eastern regions of the metro area, which have been significantly underserved for decades. On the other hand, I look at MARC ridership numbers since 2016, and I have significant concerns about the continued viability of commuter rail in the region absent massive infusions of cash. Going from an average of roughly 800k riders per month pre-pandemic to a post-pandemic high of 338k in May 2023 is alarming. I’ll admit that the last time I rode MARC this month had higher ridership than typical, but let’s be really optimistic and say ridership rebounds to 500k per month. A drop of 40% doesn’t seem sustainable to me, but I see a disconnect between transit advocates and the numbers (and my personal experience). MARC trains aren’t infrequent, and I’m not sure there’s capacity on that line, which serves Amtrak as well, to add more trains. MARC has also, for some reason, stopped running their electrified trains and is all-diesel, which is bad both environmentally and travel time-wise. What’s going to happen when Maryland runs out of pandemic aid and has a budget crunch?

I don’t want to overinterpret my experience, though. Perhaps commuter rail’s ridership issues are exacerbated by having ridership that is more likely to shift to remote work. It also appears the federal workforce, compared to other sectors, has disproportionately allowed WFH, and federal workers make up a significant percentage of MARC ridership. Is the future about more investment in intra-city (as opposed to commuter or long-distance) mass transit? Would love your thoughts on this (but please don’t use the word Maglev or I will cry).

Best, Jacob

Hi Jacob

It’s interesting how important feedback loops are in building systems. We see the strains of unexpected pathways all across our current government structure.

I suspect that Americans react to poor governance by adding even more oversight (further diluting the talent pool!) rather than cutting the number of elected positions, leading to even worse governance and on and on in a negative feedback loop.

This is definitely a part of what’s going on. Our inability to build infrastructure is, of course, about a reaction to horrible abuses by government and industry, followed by tons of rules and procedures to avoid those problems, generating new problems.

Proceduralism and legalism are the poor tools we’re strangled by as they act as restraints on abuse.

So let’s talk rail.

Here’s my overall take– moving people with cars first and primarily is a mistake. Moving people with trains works under certain circumstances, which the US largely fails to create. Moving away from electrification with MARC rolling stock is a great example. Instead of electrifying the few, infrequent spots that needed diesel, MARC invested in worse trains that lead to worse speeds and worse service. We standardized on the wrong thing.

I think commuter rail in Baltimore is largely doomed. The distance is too short, and the trains are far too infrequent and too slow. MARC has never had sufficient evening or weekday service. It’s never had service not focused on the heavy commute at 9 and 5. It’s got too many stops on rolling stock that’s far too slow. Baltimore to DC is possible with conventional rail in 25 minutes. It should be the case that trains have been running for decades by now, departing at :00 and :30 on the clock face and getting to DC in 25 minutes. But it hasn’t and it has broken transit. It’s helped to fuel suburban sprawl around DC. It’s just a mess. And of course, Baltimore City itself doesn’t help by having very poor access by public transit to Baltimore Penn. I don’t think we’ll see it “work” in our lifetimes the way that it should. But I do think we should invest anyway, because I think it just takes decades of investment to undo decades of supporting car culture.

Baltimore itself should be focused almost entirely on building better transit within Baltimore and the parts of Baltimore County that should be Baltimore City, except racism. I don’t think that relying on the DC connection and commute is a strong strategy for Baltimore. That’s not how I feel about Providence and Boston, meanwhile– Providence needs the strongest possible connection to Boston to thrive– but Baltimore both stands better on its own with a stronger metro area and has secondary connections to Philadelphia and New York. We should let Amtrak get its shit together on high speed rail along the current alignments in the Northeast Corridor and benefit from that. MARC just needs EMUs and regular service. Baltimore needs to be far less reliant on cars and focus on quality of life.

I once did some back of the envelope math that determined that simply by using bad rolling stock and having 3-4 stops that are largely empty in completely empty places south of the city, the Baltimore Light Rail takes 20-25 extra minutes to get from BWI to the Convention Center. The Nursery Road Light Rail stop makes the Boston suburbs look like transit-oriented development.

I’m pretty concerned about all the Red Line proposals right now. All of the routes have some significant curves that will impact speed which impacts frequency. The vision for tunneling seems to make some tough choices. I’m not convinced Maryland knows how to manage a project like this and do that kind of tunneling inexpensively. Bus rapid transit seems like a terrible idea, but I don’t see the red line as proposed connecting the Light Rail and Subway in such a way that makes for a coherent transit system. It’s clearly a necessary step, and I’m still mad we’re at least a decade behind now, but I also think it’s still too small with no plan for follow through to have the impact we need. I find myself agreeing with some of the advocacy saying that light rail is not enough – we should instead use heavy rail like the subway and MARC, especially with two explicit station connections to the MARC, and save on rolling stock orders and maintenance.

I’d like to see a bigger plan. Could Baltimore push for a better North-South corridor (studies are ongoing, probably should be along Greenmount to York up to Towson, in my opinion) at the same time? Could we explicitly staff up our transit agencies with experts on cut-and-cover tunnels and become the only place on the East Coast that knows how to build with Spanish costs? Could we then export this expertise as part of our investment?

It’s all going to be too expensive and take too long because it’s too small. More is more with transit, but we’re not willing to do that kind of thinking.

That said, if we don’t force denser zoning and construction out at CMS, Security Square, SSA, and the I-70 Park and Ride I’ll be furious. No more trains to parking lots in the County that just lead to people complaining that people from the city can access them.

Thanks for your letters this September!