Md. LCV Chief: As State Faces COVID Challenges, Don’t Leave Transit Needs Behind

Kim Coble
Maryland Transit Administration photo.

Maryland Matters recently speculated that, with vehicular traffic down across the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps it’s time to put the brakes on the Hogan administration’s massive highway expansion projects [“COVID-19 Decreased Air Pollution in the State, Study Shows,” Oct. 22]. We agree. It’s time to get out of that gasoline-powered car altogether and jump on the train of public transit and electrification and other zero-emission methods.

In Maryland League of Conservation Voters’ 2020 Environmental Scorecard, we criticized  the General Assembly for failing to pass any major transportation legislation, taking a step backward at exactly the moment when we should have been boldly advancing.

Leadership in both the House and the Senate have begun talking openly about their priorities for the 2021 session in the face of the two national public health emergencies of COVID-19 and racial injustice. We applaud the measures both presiding officers are taking to address these important challenges. We urge them to recognize that public transportation must be central to any proposal, and we are eager to offer solutions that will meet the state’s transportation needs while minimizing the air pollution that particularly plagues our communities of color.

Now, while our state leaders are tackling racial injustice and the systems that keep too many people of color in poverty, is the perfect time to improve our public transit system. The problems are proven:

  • A 2015 study out of Harvard identified long commute times for workers in one’s neighborhood as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty.
  • In Baltimore City, where many students rely on public transportation to get to school, our public transit system has the highest number of breakdowns in the country, according to federal data.
  • Diesel fumes from buses around the state contribute to a disproportionately high number of respiratory illnesses in our children of color who are most likely to rely on school buses. While electric buses have a higher initial cost, the long-term savings of maintenance and gas makes them more cost-effective purchases.

In a nutshell, students can’t benefit from world-class education if they are too sick to go to school or if they can’t reliably get there. Affordable health care does not help those who don’t have a way to get to their doctors without costly emergency services.

A large and diverse coalition of community advocates are rallying to push the General Assembly to pass several bills that will help address the inequities and other impacts of a neglected transit system.

The Transit Safety Investment Act will ensure that the Maryland Transit Administration has sufficient funds to adequately maintain the current fleet of buses, trains, subways and stations – allowing safe and reliable transportation for roughly 6 million riders each month including those our health care workers and the people in our state who do not own their own cars to reach their health care providers.

The Electric Bus Transition Act would ensure that by 2035 all the buses maintained by the state are zero-emission buses, reducing the diesel pollution that most impacts communities of color and low-income populations in our state.

Another bill, School Bus Purchasing – Zero Emission Vehicle – Requirement, long championed by the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, would do the same for school buses to help combat the epidemic levels of asthma in Latinx children around the state.

The Transportation Funding Act creates the state fund to implement the Transportation Climate Initiative, a multi-state compact to reduce transportation pollution throughout the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region.

The General Assembly should also consider a new bill that expands “complete streets” policies that this General Assembly has already supported. The bill would allow projects that improve bike, pedestrian and public transportation infrastructure to be funded by red light and traffic camera revenues, which would make these systems safer and more accessible to all Marylanders.

Each of these proposals helps support our statewide goals of reducing the carbon emissions from our transportation sector and preserving the air pollution reductions that have been a result of COVID-driven stay-at-home orders. Each of these proposals also supports the growth of good, family-supporting union jobs at nearly double the rate of the same amount of money spent on highway expansion. That sounds like a win-win solution for all Marylanders who are struggling to emerge from quarantine.

Marylanders deserve investments in infrastructure that improves our health and the health of our communities. We deserve access to good jobs and good health care. And we deserve the safe, clean and reliable transportation system — including bike and pedestrian infrastructure — that allows us to truly be one Maryland, connected to each other and all that are important to us.

We look forward to working with the Maryland General Assembly to make all of this possible.

— KIM COBLE

The writer is executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.