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Hard Lessons From Baltimore’s Bus Redesign

After losing a $2.9 billion light-rail project, the transit-dependent city got a rebooted bus system. But ridership and reliability has barely budged.
In Baltimore, a better bus could be a big boost.
In Baltimore, a better bus could be a big boost.J.M. Giordano/CityLab

Soon after he took office in 2015, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan nixed Baltimore’s Red Line project, a $2.9 billion light rail that would have served as a critical connector for the city’s east and west sides. But for the city’s beleaguered transit users, he also offered up a sort of consolation prize: a $135 million bus system reboot.

Dubbed BaltimoreLink, this would be the first substantial change in Baltimore’s bus system in 50 years; its rollout was heavy on hype, promising a high-frequency grid, dedicated bus lanes, and transit signal priority corridors that would dramatically improve service. The revamped system was supposed to give more Baltimoreans access to jobs and better connect residents of this high-poverty city to opportunities. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh promised that BaltimoreLink would play a key role in the city’s future economic growth. And for Maryland’s new Republican governor, the reboot had a symbolic role to play in mollifying the state’s heavily Democratic largest city: “BaltimoreLink signifies the state’s long-term commitment to the future of this city,” Hogan said.