U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin said Senate leaders are navigating “legitimate problems,” as well as party politics, in pursuit of a bipartisan infrastructure deal. But the senator told a Baltimore business association Monday he remains optimistic an agreement could be reached this week.
“If it’s not done this week, I will revise my optimism,” the Maryland Democrat said. “I really hope we can get it done this week.”
The ongoing negotiations over a nearly $1 trillion investment in the nation’s railroads, roads, bridges, ports and broadband internet — and how Maryland might spend federal dollars it receives — took center stage in a virtual summit hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee.
Disagreement over mass transit funding is the final hurdle in the negotiations, according to the lead Republican negotiator. The two sides are “about 90% of the way there,” GOP Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said on Sunday.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater, appearing on Monday’s GBC panel, said a $7 billion backlog of maintenance needs across the state’s transportation systems would be the initial investment of any infrastructure money Maryland receives.
“We have to focus on that first,” he said.
The planned $4 billion replacement of Amtrak’s Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel, named for Frederick Douglass, is another Maryland priority for federal funding, Slater said.
Transit improvements in Baltimore’s East-West Priority Corridor — where the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project was planned before being canceled by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015 — are among the other uses the Maryland Department of Transportation has in mind, Slater said.
“There are a number of really good projects out there that are important for our future,” he said.
Ridership on the Maryland Transit Administration’s buses did not drop as deeply as on other modes of travel during the pandemic, Slater noted, as essential workers continued to ride. While 29% of households in the Baltimore region lack access to a vehicle, another 39% have one car or less, he said.
“You’re looking at almost 70% of the residents in the Baltimore region that have access to one car or less,” Slater said. “That’s the importance of our transit system, and we’re focused on providing that highest quality service to those who need it the most.”
The pandemic also highlighted the inadequacy of Maryland’s broadband internet, Cardin said.
“We’re going to do everything we possibly can, literally, to get the funding so that every home in Maryland can be connected,” Cardin said. “We have to have that.”
Kenrick “Rick” M. Gordon, director of Maryland’s Office of Statewide Broadband, saw his budget balloon to nearly $300 million for the next fiscal year. It came with “a very tall order” from the legislature to provide high-speed access to all residents by 2025, Gordon said on Monday’s panel.
“As COVID-19 started, we quickly saw that students did not have access to broadband,” he said.
The broadband office gave grants to libraries and school districts to provide wireless internet hot-spots and access points in the short term while it works to expand the state’s network, Gordon said. Future investments include subsidies for network infrastructure, devices, service, inclusion and digital literacy.
The office distributed $8.7 million to provide internet service to 65,000 in 22 school districts, he said.
“Don’t tell me we don’t have a broadband problem in Maryland,” he said.
Donald C. Fry, the Greater Baltimore Committee’s president and CEO, said he appreciated the state leaders’ work, despite the uncertainty over the negotiations, to prepare for whatever money Maryland gets.
“These opportunities don’t come that often, so you need to make sure we’re ready to move forward,” Fry said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.