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Baltimore-area officials back state legislators’ renewed push to provide more transit money

Baltimore-area officials endorsed a renewed legislative push for a law requiring more state investment in the beleaguered Maryland Transit Administration during a news conference Monday at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Metro Station.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman joined state Sen. Cory McCray and Del. Brooke Lierman in advocating for more funding to meet the MTA’s maintenance and other needs.

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The Maryland Department of Transportation’s draft five-year budget provides only an average of $326 million per year for critical repair needs, while the agency’s own Capital Needs Inventory called for an average of $462 million per year, the Democratic officials said.

The MTA had forecast a $2 billion shortfall in maintenance funding over the next decade — and that was before the pandemic tanked MTA ridership and other state transportation revenues.

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“Too many people are standing in the cold this morning, waiting for a bus that isn’t coming,” said Lierman, who co-chairs the transit caucus. “We rely on those essential workers, but they cannot get to work if the bus or the train doesn’t show up.”

The Transit Safety and Investment Act, which passed in the state House of Delegates but did not leave the Senate during last year’s abbreviated General Assembly session, is scheduled for a Senate hearing Jan. 20, one week after this year’s session opens Wednesday. A House hearing has not yet been scheduled but is expected to be soon.

McCray and Lierman’s cross-filed legislation would require the state to spend no less than its current funding levels on MTA operating expenses in the 2023-2028 fiscal years.

It also would require maintenance and upkeep funding of at least $361.9 million in the 2023 fiscal year; $414.9 million in fiscal year 2024; $453.8 million in fiscal year 2025; $566.6 million in fiscal years 2026 and 2027; and $531.6 million in fiscal year 2028. Those figures are based on funding needs the agency reported to lawmakers, which was mandated in a law passed by the legislature in 2018.

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The additional money would address light rail and subway track maintenance, MARC safety and security system upgrades, bus and bus shelter maintenance, electronic enhancements, software updates, positive train control, Clean Water Act-required upgrades, improved station access, bus shelter examinations, electronic-vehicle charging stations and solar rooftops at bus depots, officials said.

It would not include money already set aside for the planning, engineering, land acquisition or construction of the $5.8 billion Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The Maryland Department of Transportation “will be carefully reviewing” the legislation, spokeswoman Erin Henson said Monday. The state’s current five-year budget has been crafted with input from elected officials and residents across Maryland, she said.

“Transportation Secretary Greg Slater’s goal [is] to make investments in all transportation modes to support safe and reliable operations, ensure our assets are in a state of good repair, and enhance passenger comfort and convenience,” Henson said. “This budget will reflect the focus on system preservation across our transportation network, as well as building a shelf of projects for the next generation.”

The elected officials in the Baltimore region, who helped scuttle a plan to slash bus routes in the region last year, want more MTA funding because they know their constituents across the Baltimore region rely on it to get to the supermarket, the pharmacy, work and other destinations, McCray said.

The roughly one in three Baltimoreans who do not have access to a car and rely on the MTA to get around are familiar with the challenges caused by a historic lack of state funding, Scott said.

“When our bus system was facing cuts and reduced service, we stood together in an effort that ultimately got that decision reversed,” Scott said. “Today, we stand together for a system that is equitably funded and that works better for our residents.”

Many in the Baltimore region are still seething over Hogan’s cancellation of the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project, which returned $900 million in grant money to the federal government, in 2015.

Without any real alternative in its place today, the Baltimore region remains one of the most congested in the country,” Olszewski said. “These moments remind us that we must do whatever we can to fight for the funding our region deserves.”

Ball noted Howard County’s investments in transit and said a more balanced transportation system “will help equalize the playing field” for residents who rely on the state buses and trains.

“Nearly 60% of our residents commute in and out of Howard County every day,” Ball said. “We need both a well run and adequately funded system if we want to improve the quality of life and opportunities for all residents and businesses.”

Officials say increased investments are especially needed, given MTA’s precarious financial situation amid a pandemic and the outsized role essential workers, who rely on the system, have played over the past year.

The projected $2 billion shortfall over the next decade represents money that is needed to keep the agency’s transit systems running safely, in compliance with regulatory requirements, and enhanced with new technology and mobility options, according to the MTA.

Representatives for two major employers — Johns Hopkins University and Health System, and Tradepoint Atlantic — also voiced support for the legislation, as did the MTA operators’ union.

David McMillan, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, whose members drive the MTA’s buses and trains, said they want additional MTA funding because they often are the first to hear criticism from passengers about breakdowns and other problems.

“They are the ones who are taking the heat for it,” McMillan said. “The public doesn’t know why.”

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