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Maryland is a public transit leader for the wrong reasons: It’s No. 1 in breakdowns | COMMENTARY

Patricia Reed-El, 60, has worked at Sinai Hospital for the past 19 years and relies on an MTA bus to get from home to work every day.
Patricia Reed-El, 60, has worked at Sinai Hospital for the past 19 years and relies on an MTA bus to get from home to work every day. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

In mid-November, I was stopped at a red light in my neighborhood when I saw a woman waiting for a bus. She had a mask on and a baby wrapped up on her back. It was early and cold. At that hour, I would bet she was going someplace to drop off her child and would then head to work. As I stood there, it occurred to me that even without knowing where she was going, I knew based on the statistics that she likely had a long commute in front of her. MTA buses have an on-time rate of only 70% — and that’s not even counting buses that don’t show up at all.

Why are Marylanders who rely on public transit at the mercy of such woefully inadequate service? Recently released federal data indicates that for the second year our buses and rail system — MARC trains, subway and light rail — have a higher breakdown rate than any other comparable region in the nation.

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The hard truth is that Maryland is a leader in public transit — just not quite the way we want to be. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), the 13th largest transit system in the United States, has the dubious distinction of being first in the nation in the number of public transit breakdowns.

MTA’s performance wouldn’t be acceptable in any industry — try telling your boss you’ll be late 1½ days per week and see how that goes over — so why does Gov. Larry Hogan consider it acceptable to underfund our transit system to the point that it offers such unacceptable service?

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For many health care and other essential workers, simply getting to work to do their jobs is a challenge. Waiting too long for transit is a daily reality facing thousands of workers in Central Maryland and around the state who rely on public transit to travel to and from work — and many more who must use it to get to school, shop, see a doctor or visit family.

In Baltimore City, almost 40% of public transit commuters have essential jobs, with health care workers making up the largest share — commuting to Johns Hopkins Hospital, University of Maryland Medical System, MedStar Health, LifeBridge Health, St. Agnes Hospital and others. These jobs cannot be done from home. One in three Baltimore residents doesn’t own a car, and many simply cannot afford one.

Maryland is a leader in many industries and our governor has proclaimed we are “open for business.” Why do we not then ensure that employees and customers (or patients) can access those businesses? Because MDOT has refused to take care of the system.

How did we get to this point? Follow the funding. By MDOT’s own analysis, MTA has been sorely neglected in the past six years: It identified over $2 billion in unfunded essential maintenance and needed enhancements for our buses, subways, commuter trains and light rail over the next decade. In all, $462 million per year is needed just to meet basic safety requirements. Yet, the Maryland Department of Transportation keeps proposing capital budgets for MTA that fall further and further below that minimum. The latest proposed budget just piles on to the existing backlog of unfunded repairs.

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Since Governor Hogan took office, MTA’s share of the transportation capital program has fallen from 31% to 19%. At a time when public transit is more critical than ever to people’s lives and to restoring the economy, we continue to kick the can down the road.

By not addressing infrastructure and maintenance needs, we are consigning tens of thousands of riders to an unreliable system, making their daily commutes or other trips unpredictable and difficult. In short, we are failing essential workers and so many others who need mass transit and those who want to use it. Last year the House of Delegates passed legislation to increase funding to MTA, but the Senate ran out of time. This year, Sen. Cory McCray and I will again be proposing legislation to provide the funding necessary to create a safe and reliable transit system.

Maintaining and fixing our public transit system is essential. But we shouldn’t stop there. Let’s continue the conversation about expanding mass transit by implementing the recently completed Regional Transit Plan. It’s vital to improving the quality of life in Maryland and should be an essential part of our response to the threat of climate change.

MDOT will deliver the capital budget to the General Assembly in January, but if the draft released in October holds, the funding gap will have significantly grown; residents and businesses simply cannot sustain this underinvestment.

It’s time for Maryland to adequately fund our transit system, bring it into the 21st century and find ways to make public transit work for businesses, students, mobility-impaired, seniors and essential workers — and for that mom, surely waiting too long on a cold morning.

Brooke Lierman (brooke.lierman@house.state.md.us) is a Democrat representing Baltimore City in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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