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Baltimore City officials grill state transportation boss over transit funding, relief aid spending in proposed six-year budget

Highlighting Maryland’s planned $500 million investment in the Purple Line in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and the lack of any highway or bridge stimulus money allocated to Baltimore, city officials urged changes to the state’s proposed transportation budget during a Monday hearing.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Transportation Director Steve Sharkey noted the $1.2 billion in unfunded capital needs for maintenance across the city’s various transportation systems, including a $675 million backlog in Americans with Disabilities Act-required improvements.

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“We cannot sit back and watch dollars continue to flow to other parts of the state while our infrastructure suffers,” Sharkey said. “We are going to be vocal and we are going to continue to push for the investment that the City and the region needs to compete and prosper economically.”

A continued desire to close a persistent transportation funding gap between the two regions characterized Monday’s hearing, the kickoff of a series of virtual briefings for local officials on the Hogan administration’s draft six-year, $16.4 billion statewide transportation budget.

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Representatives of Maryland’s transit, port, highways, airport, motor vehicle and tolled facilities agencies provided updates over the course of a two-hour hearing on the major initiatives underway in the Baltimore area, from a new passenger rail tunnel to port berth reconstruction to vehicle replacements.

As Maryland travel volumes recover from a protracted COVID-19 pandemic that tanked transportation revenues in Maryland and nationwide, the state Department of Transportation is proposing to devote roughly half of the upcoming budget — $8.2 billion — to preserving aging infrastructure, Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said.

The 2022-2027 budget, which will be presented to the General Assembly during the legislative session beginning next year, contains $1.2 billion in new federal stimulus money, Slater said.

But during city officials’ review of the draft budget, Scott said, “it was difficult to see how or where those funds are extended.”

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“I would encourage a more clear communication of the funding streams and a better accounting of how those funds are extended across modes of transportation and geographically across our state,” the Democratic mayor said.

Slater said he heard the concerns from Baltimore officials “loud and clear” and promised the department would draft a supplemental document better outlining where the stimulus money was spent.

The Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties already serves as a painful reminder to many Baltimore boosters of its unbuilt counterpart, the $2.9 billion east-west Red Line, which Republican Gov. Larry Hogan canceled in 2015.

State Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat who is running for comptroller, called the Purple Line “a complete cluster,” referring to delays and the extra $500 million for the Washington-area project in the new budget, including a $375 million “advanced payment” in fiscal year 2022.

The extra costs, related to a settlement with the former construction contractor and paying off earlier financing, made Lierman question whether Maryland should enter into any further public-private partnerships, including the Hogan administration’s proposed toll lane project in the Washington area.

“Now you’re paying hundreds of millions of dollars extra, and you’re completely beholden to your bondholders,” she told Slater on the call.

The transportation secretary noted the success of the 50-year lease of the Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal to Ports America Chesapeake, which he called the “marquee” example of a public-private partnership. But he acknowledged the lawsuit and other issues that have mired the Purple Line.

“We are learning at each and every step,” he said. “It’s these larger, complex kind of construction [projects] where we have some challenges. But at every step of the way, as I’m trying to work through them, we’re having discussions on what works and what don’t we feel like works.”

The Maryland Transit Administration — a constant focus of Baltimore leaders’ ire because of persistent service issues — continues to underperform, several said. About one in three city residents lacks access to a vehicle, but Baltimore-area leaders lack any oversight of the state agency.

City Councilman Ryan Dorsey was one of several on the call who criticized the MTA’s current level of service, which he said is “perpetually unable to deliver.”

“Whether I’m talking to daily riders or people who say there’s no way I could possibly rely on MTA to get me where I need to go,” he said, “it’s universal that basically nobody believes that the service is delivering what we both need and deserve. We continue to need more investment across the board.”

More than a quarter of the buses in the MTA’s core service arrived late as of June, the most recent month for which data is available, according to the agency.

Acting MTA chief Holly Arnold noted light rail and subway vehicle replacements, among other investments. She said the MTA is laying the groundwork for more bus rapid transit, metro subway and light rail service on east-west and north-south corridors through the city with its Regional Transit Plan.

City Councilwoman Odette Ramos reiterated her colleagues’ concerns and invited Slater and Arnold to a not-yet-scheduled council hearing about Baltimore students’ concerns regarding issues with MTA service, which many rely on to commute to school each day.

The Maryland Department of Transportation has scheduled budget briefings with the other 23 local jurisdictions between Wednesday and Nov. 16.

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