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Editorial

Maryland’s transportation future may be decided by this year’s election | COMMENTARY

In mid-April, a nonpartisan coalition of Maryland transit advocates representing more than 30 groups statewide sent out a questionnaire to candidates for governor asking them what their plans might be for public transportation. The questions ranged from the enforcement of Baltimore bus lanes to greater use of electric vehicles and expanding MARC commuter rail service. The results fell almost precisely along party lines. Seven of the nine Democrats running for the office pledged to support transit including Baltimore’s east-west Red Line, the $2.9 light rail system that Gov. Larry Hogan derailed in his first term. The Republicans? Silence. None of the four GOP candidates on the primary ballot bothered to reply to the Transform Maryland Transportation Coalition.

If that collective cold shoulder doesn’t make it clear enough, then The Baltimore Sun’s own voter guide may reinforce the point. Primary voters should take a moment to review the responses at www.baltimoresun.com/politics/elections/voter-guide. Of the two Republican candidates who responded to The Sun, neither included revival of the Red Line as a top transportation priority. Front-runner Kelly Schulz at least mentioned transit in her response but did not offer any new projects (although she did specifically express support for the completion of the Purple Line, the Red Line’s D.C.-area counterpart).

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This is unfortunate for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that Baltimore’s underperforming public transportation system, run by the Maryland Transit Administration, a state agency reporting to the governor, is failing to get city students to school on time. But then, it’s also not getting adults to work especially well, either. It is, however, now more expensive for riders. As of last Sunday, MTA fares increased by a dime after a one-year delay underwritten with federal COVID-19 relief money.

Granted, Baltimore is a far more important voting bloc to Democrats than it is to Republicans, but traffic congestion-plagued suburban voters and the business community care about this, too. Just this week, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Greater Washington Partnership joined forces in a call for expanded city transit services. If high gasoline prices have demonstrated anything in recent weeks, it is the usefulness of having the means to travel without depositing $100 for each fill-up at the local service station. Towson now has the Towson Loop, a free circulator bus, running six days a week. Even MARC has its broad appeal to rural Washington-bound commuters from as far away as Perryville and Martinsburg, West Virginia.

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And before you decide, “Hey, I’ll just vote for a Democrat to advance Maryland toward a more 21st century transportation strategy and less of a 20th fossil fuel-dependent one,” not so fast. While the Democrats running for governor have made all kinds of promises to, if not outright resurrect the Red Line, produce a worthy replacement, they are not nearly so clear on how to pay for it — beyond seizing on federal infrastructure funds. During endorsement interviews with The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board, candidates largely waived off concerns over the state and local share for new transportation projects with none promising new taxes down the road but somehow anticipating enough money in the Transportation Trust Fund.

Former U.S. Department of Education Secretary John King promised transit advocates he would work with Maryland’s delegation to Congress to restore the federal share of the project and will “prioritize building and finishing the Red Line ahead of car-centered transportation projects like highway widenings and more new road construction.” Former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, whom The Sun has endorsed, similarly promised as governor he would be “providing the necessary funding,” with no further explanation of where the money might be found. Others gave variations on that response.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect candidates to provide specifics, but coming up with $4 billion or more for a major new transportation project is not quite so easily done. The reason the Red Line advanced as far as it did the first time around was that then-Gov. Martin O’Malley was willing to raise the state’s gas tax to do so. Today, amid record high prices at the pump, the gas tax is seen as Public Enemy No. 1. What’s the alternative? That’s not so clear. And it’s a problem for those wannabe governors who prefer road and bridge construction, too.

Still, we’re glad to see some candidates at least accepting some of the realities facing Maryland’s transportation future. First, that it can’t be what it’s been in the past — car dependent. Not only because it’s inefficient but because climate change is a real and a serious threat, especially to a state with thousands of miles of coastline. But second, that the only serious strategy to addressing the state’s transportation needs under these circumstances is to invest more heavily in greener, more efficient technology. And that means public transportation.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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