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Maryland will set aside 500 vaccines per week for MTA front-line staff

The Maryland Transit Administration launched a vaccine clinic Friday for its employees, and the state plans to set aside 500 vaccines per week for MTA drivers, mechanics and other front-line workers, the agency’s head told state lawmakers Friday.

“We began vaccinating our employees a few weeks ago, and today marks the first day of our on-site clinic, with about 70 employees this morning being vaccinated on MTA property,” Administrator Kevin Quinn said. “This effort will continue throughout the next few weeks.”

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Overall MTA ridership remains down about 60% as of early February, but bus ridership — which serves the one in three people in Baltimore without cars — has remained steady, and is down only 48%, Quinn told lawmakers during a virtual, joint hearing of House and Senate transportation subcommittees.

During the hearing, state Del. Marc Korman grilled the state transportation department’s chief financial officer about the MTA’s operational funding, asking why the state’s contribution to the fiscal 2022 budget fell an estimated $50 million to $67 million short of the levels mandated by state law.

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“Is there a view that the law doesn’t have to be followed?” asked Korman, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the House subcommittee.

“We certainly understand what funding mandates are,” responded Jaclyn Hartman, the MTA’s chief financial officer. “The difficulty of this particular mandate was, given the dramatic revenue decline that came with COVID, as well as the dramatic decline in ridership ... providing an additional roughly $50 million in operating budget spending, at a time when ridership is significantly down ... there was not a good use of that money on the operating budget side.”

Korman noted that a commonly used process exists, under the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, to adjust budgets to comply with legal requirements and said he was “flabbergasted” by the state transportation department flouting the legislature’s mandate.

“I understand there are a lot of pressures,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you just get to do whatever you want.”

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The MTA used $260.5 million in federal relief aid to close a funding gap in fiscal year 2020, according to a Department of Legislative Services analysis. Bus operations account for 51% of the agency’s spending.

The kerfuffle over the 2022 operating funds followed a letter this week to Gov. Larry Hogan from a transit advocacy group, raising alarm about a shift of state money out of the MTA’s 2020 and 2021 operating budgets upon receiving federal aid for transit.

Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said in the letter that the move, which he previously called a “shell game,” negated the federal aid’s effects.

Maryland cut its funding of the agency that runs buses, subway, light rail, mobility and MARC trains “much more than it cut state funding for the other modal administrations,” he wrote in the letter.

Amid fierce backlash in the fall, the Hogan administration reversed its plan to slash MTA bus service in the Baltimore region in 2021, instead reducing MARC train service, which had deeper and more sustained drops in ridership.

O’Malley said the cuts represented a 31% and 22% funding reduction in the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, respectively. No other state transportation agency saw its share of state funding reduced more than 15% in fiscal 2020 or more than 11% in fiscal 2021, O’Malley wrote.

“As a result, Congress’ intent in sending aid for public transportation under the CARES Act was counteracted,” O’Malley wrote. “Now that Congress has passed another round of aid ... and it includes aid for state Departments of Transportation in addition to aid for public transportation, I am writing to request that you restore funding to the MDOT MTA.”

The request did not come up during the hearing. But with ridership still lagging amid the pandemic, capital funding to address maintenance and other needs should take precedence over operations funding, Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said.

“We feel it’s best to use [state] funds to not increase that operating funding, but be ready for that increase in operating when that ridership starts to come back,” Slater said.

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