The Daily Record: The need for a visionary transit network

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on May 17, 2019.

For decades, the Maryland Department of Transportation has ignored the transit needs of the Baltimore region while massive investment has occurred in the Washington suburbs. For example, the state of Maryland has committed to the Purple Line, a $2.4 billion light-rail line under construction between New Carrollton and Bethesda. Meanwhile, the Baltimore region received a $135 million overhaul of the public bus system operated by the Maryland Transit Administration.

With the cancellation of the $3 billion east-west light-rail project known as the Red Line in 2015, the deliberate and direct disinvestment in transit in the Greater Baltimore region threatens the economic viability and competitiveness of the region.

During the 2018 debate over increased funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Greater Baltimore Committee pressed the General Assembly to address the disparate investment in the state’s two mass transit systems, which is inconsistent with current state law. In response, the General Assembly enacted legislation that required the MTA to develop the Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan and established the Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan Commission to provide guidance in this effort.

When the commission first met in March 2019, it became clear that MTA’s intended scope for the development of the Regional Transit Plan and its strategy for engaging the commission did not align with the legislative intent. In addressing the commission, MDOT touted transit investments in the Baltimore region and urged members to make recommendations within current budgetary parameters — guidance that is problematic for multiple reasons.

The assumption that a visionary, yet attainable, regional transit plan can be realized within current budgetary constraints is inconceivable, but particularly so in the context of current budget trends. When the department shared total spending figures from the 2019-2024 Consolidated Transportation Plan, it failed to mention that capital funding declines precipitously over the six-year period — from $679.8 million in FY 2019 to $326.6 million in FY 2024. In addition to a dramatic decrease in funding for major projects, funding for system preservation and minor projects declines significantly, while funding for development and evaluation (i.e., planning for anything new) zeroes out after FY 2019.

Legislative action

Thankfully, advocates and elected officials were paying attention. Legislation that passed on the final day of the 2019 General Assembly session clarifies requirements for engagement with the commission and specific elements that are to be included in the Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan.

The GBC commends the legislature and Baltimore City delegation, in particular, for their ongoing commitment to ensuring that the development of the Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan is a meaningful process that results in a comprehensive, actionable transit product that will drive investment, development, and progress for years to come. The GBC is encouraged by the enhanced guidelines passed by the General Assembly and stands ready to support the Commission throughout its process.

The GBC’s commitment to developing  a regional, connected, multi-modal transportation network that adequately and efficiently supports the movement of people and goods throughout the Greater Baltimore region is consistent with findings of the GBC report, “Gaining a Competitive Edge: Keys to Economic Growth and Job Creation in Maryland.” In the report, one of the eight core pillars of a competitive business environment cited by the state’s economic development professionals and top business leaders is:

Superior transportation infrastructure with reliable funding mechanisms. An essential prerequisite of a competitive business environment includes a well-funded and maintained highway, transit, port and airport infrastructure that provides reliable and efficient options to move people, goods and services.

As the commission moves through its discussions and deliberations it will be imperative for employers, business leaders and residents in the Baltimore region to make it clear that investment in the transit network in the Baltimore region is absolutely crucial to the economic competitiveness of the region and must be considered alongside any investments in WMATA. Failing to do so will only leave Baltimore further behind in its efforts to build an efficient and effective transportation network that is key to any major metropolitan area’s ability to be competitive and flourish in today’s global economy.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record.