GBC 2021 Transportation & Infrastructure Summit Explores Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework Plan

Transportation Summit 2021 panelists

The Greater Baltimore Committee’s 2021 Transportation & Infrastructure Summit took place virtually on July 26. The event included a discussion on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework plan to invest in highways, bridges, transit, ports and broadband to help rebuild America.

Panelists included:

  • Senator Ben Cardin, Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure
  • Secretary Greg Slater, Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT)
  • Director Kenrick “Rick” M. Gordon, head of Maryland’s Office of Statewide Broadband

In his opening comments, Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Donald C. Fry said, “We are fortunate to be having the summit at a time when much of Washington and the nation are discussing solutions to address long-overdue improvements to our transportation and infrastructure nationwide and all of us are watching closely what impact the legislation may have on the State of Maryland and the Greater Baltimore region.”

In referencing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, Fry said it “provides a golden opportunity for the nation to finally move forward and get its infrastructure modernized and improved so our economy can remain strong. …Unfortunately, transportation and infrastructure have not been adequately funded or maintained — in some cases for decades.”

Highlights from the discussion:

Senator Cardin on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework process

Senator Ben CardinMaryland’s “federal delegation has been extremely active. It is Team Maryland. …We have to have the right type of infrastructure. Economic growth means jobs and means our future,” Senator Cardin said in his opening remarks.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure process has been “a struggle,” he added. “The politics of this is brutal. But I must tell you we’re cautiously optimistic that we can put the package together this week.”

Senator Cardin noted that the major hurdle in negotiations right now is transit. “We are very much committed to maintaining 20% set aside for transit projects. This has not been agreed to yet.”

Top priorities, according to Senator Cardin:

  • Roads and bridges — Includes greenway space, pedestrian paths, bicycle paths, electric charging stations
  • Money for equity issues
  • Broadband — “We are committed that every home, every business has access to affordable, high-speed internet access. That’s our goal,” Senator Cardin said. “We know that the needs are so much greater than the capacity at this moment. The broadband demand out there is obvious.”

These important issues mean “economic growth in Baltimore. It means jobs and it means our future,” Senator Cardin said.

Prioritizing Black and Brown communities

“Our commitment is environmental justice within transportation. It would help bring communities together that have been divided by transportation programs. Make sure that transportation programs are a plus not a minus for underserved communities. We’re looking at all those issues,” Senator Cardin said.

Investing in trails and green spaces

Senator Cardin said Baltimore communities benefit by being “connected through green spaces in which people can enjoy their community where they didn’t necessarily have to get into a car. They could walk or bike. They’d be connected to other communities. Not isolated. Reconnecting communities through green space has been helpful in regards to quality of life.” Additionally, it “saves our environment. Keeps people out of cars. It’s good for our environment and keeps traffic off the streets, which means less congested highways.”

Investing in water infrastructure

Senator Cardin noted several issues related to water infrastructure are being addressed, including:

  • Drinking water funds
  • Clean water
  • Waste water

“It’s a pretty comprehensive bill. It will also help us with storm runoff in the Chesapeake Bay and there’s a commitment from President Biden to rid our community of lead pipes, particularly in Baltimore.”

The importance of transit and broadband

“We need transit in order to help our environment. We need transit so people can get to work and live where they want to live and work where they want to work. We need a much more substantial investment in Baltimore, Maryland and our nation in transit. We need high-speed rail. We need commuter rail. We need public mass transit,” Senator Cardin said.

He added that broadband access is a “very, very, very high priority. We’re going to do everything we possibly can literally to get the funding so that every home in Maryland can be connected. We have to have that.”

Secretary Slater on MDOT investments

Secretary Greg Slater“This is a really important topic for all of us as we rebuild and we’re continuing to focus on where to make investments,” said Secretary Slater.

He noted MDOT is focused on system preservation, investing in new projects and how to appropriately invest in planning and engineering to rebuild.

Slater noted MDOT has received about $1.69 billion “all of which has helped us keep things moving. It’s no secret that declines in travel are going to hit us on the budgetary side. Highway traffic was down more than 50% at peak. BWI passenger traffic was down more than 95%. Our transit ridership was down more than 76%. Core bus system ridership remained about 50% demonstrating how important that is to our frontline workers in our community in Baltimore. Those federal and state dollars throughout the pandemic have been critical in helping us avoid layoffs, keep projects moving and continue to plan for the future,” said Slater.

“MDOT and Baltimore City have committed to funding the near-term priority investments, including dedicated bus lanes and transit signal priority to improve that speed of travel.”

MDOT priorities moving forward

  • Replace bridges
  • Passenger rail bottleneck
  • State of good repair needs across transit system
  • Safe urbanized roadways
  • More transit options, such as an interconnected system

Slater also noted that other areas that need to be addressed include the East-West corridor in Baltimore, the Howard Street Tunnel and the Baltimore and Patapsco Tunnel, which is now known as the Frederick Douglass rail tunnel. Construction on the project is expected to generate 30,000 jobs in the Baltimore region, he said.

Some other areas of focus include: Improving bus stops, pedestrian safety, shelter lighting, real-time transit information and bike facilities.

“It’s really, really important for us that transit has remained in service throughout the pandemic and will continue to serve [the community] moving forward,” Slater said.

He noted that by late August, MDOT will be making some improvements to bus service and eliminating the surcharge for express bus riders. MARC train and commuter buses will also resume their full schedules.

Additionally, MDOT has been working on a statewide transit plan. “It’s going to set the foundation for what our transit system is going to look like over the next 50 years and this plan, as it comes to fruition, is going to really set the path for us,” Slater said.

Zero emissions efforts

Slater said by 2030, he plans to have 50% of the transit fleet compliant with zero emission standards “so we’re starting to lay the foundation, investing in zero emission buses and transit vehicles.” He added that they’re also dedicating funds to charging facilities and dual locomotives that can run both on diesel and electric.

The future of transit projects in regards to remote work models

“Some of our transit systems are recovering at a different rate from others. MARC and commuter buses are recovering at a much slower pace. Coming out of this pandemic, we’re going to have a higher incidence of a remote workforce,” Slater said. “In Baltimore, the core bus system never really got below 50% when everyone was working remotely. There was the need there. We focused on providing the highest quality service to those who need it the most. Providing more access so those residents can get access to jobs.”

Slater addressed the Baltimore business community when he said, “We’re big believers in partnerships and collaboration and the more we can work together, the better the results.”

Director Gordon on broadband access

Director Kenrick "Rick" M. GordonDirector Gordon said that Maryland has several challenges when it comes to broadband. “The goal is to ensure that all residents have access to high-speed broadband internet by 2025.”

Gordon noted that while his office used to be a one-person operation, he is adding a program manager to handle equity and inclusion and a program manager for infrastructure and construction issues. He said that’s the high dollar priority because it costs $35,000-$70,000/mile to build broadband infrastructure.

Broadband grants funded

Gordon noted that the department was provided $8.7 million in funding for grants to 22 school districts or service to 65,000 students.

Greater Baltimore Area funding in 2020:

  • Baltimore City — $46,347
  • Baltimore County — $73,306
  • Carroll County — $60,000
  • Harford County — $149,454

Greater Baltimore Area funding in 2021:

  • Anne Arundel — $58,989
  • Baltimore City — $1,778,600
  • Baltimore County — $3,002,640
  • Carroll County — $620,488
  • Harford County — $649,699
Future broadband plans

Gordon said soon his office will announce a service fee subsidy to provide broadband to low income households. The department is also working on a device subsidy so that it can grant counties money to help low income households purchase equipment. “It doesn’t do you any good to have broadband service, if you don’t have a device to get on,” he said. There’s also a digital inclusion fund of $2 million for nonprofits working with low income households to train them on internet usage.

To close out the summit, Fry said, “We are optimistic that this bipartisan legislation will be enacted and be a significant impact for economic growth, mobility, and providing equitable access to broadband in our state and region.”

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