Opinion: State’s Economy, Environment and Equity Depend on Transit

transit
Maryland Transit Administration photo.

With light at the end of the tunnel now in sight after a year unlike any other, Marylanders can look forward to the return of at least some normalcy during the year ahead. However, whether current and future Maryland transit riders see light at the end of their tunnel during 2021 and beyond depends in large part on the Maryland General Assembly’s response to a critical piece of legislation that will be introduced when the new session begins in January.

Even more importantly, our state’s economic health, sustainability and equity for all Marylanders depend on the legislature and governor allocating the necessary resources to invest in safe, reliable public transportation that serves our entire state.

Here’s why …

Maryland’s Economic Health: Shortly before Gov. Larry Hogan abruptly canceled the Baltimore region’s long-awaited east/west light rail (Red Line) after nearly 15 years of planning, Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Donald Fry said, “The Red Line is a jobs line. It’s a critical piece of our economic growth.” This followed a report by Transportation for America, a Washington, D.C., based alliance of business, civic and elected leaders, which projected that over 15,000 new jobs and 7,500 new businesses leading to $2.1 billion in economic activity would result from the Red Line’s construction.

Sadly, the Baltimore region and state of Maryland are not realizing the benefits of this canceled investment – which would have included greater tax revenues and reduced public assistance costs. The entire state suffers when our largest population center and economic engine struggles.

Moreover, Maryland’s lack of comprehensive, reliable public transportation puts us at a disadvantage compared to other East Coast states where major metropolitan regions have long had robust public transit systems as well as states throughout the country where metropolitan areas are investing in major expansions of their current transit systems.

Over the past year, voters in areas including Phoenix, Austin and San Francisco approved measures for increased taxes to support expansion, maintenance and other improvements in their regions’ public transportation.

And on the other side of the Potomac, Fairfax County voters approved a $160 million bond issue to provide annual support for the Washington region’s rail and bus system – Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Transit is winning at the ballot box.

Attracting and retaining new Maryland businesses and residents in the 21st century clearly requires greater investment in public transportation.

Maryland’s Sustainability: According to data from the 2017 Maryland Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in our state is the on-road transportation sector, and passenger cars account for nearly a third of these emissions.

Dirty emissions from our cars contribute to the air pollution that health experts say makes COVID-19 more deadly. Going forward, we need to ask which transportation-mode investments will best reduce air pollution and enable Marylanders to breathe the cleanest air possible.

Moreover, with the increasing impacts of global warming posing ever greater threats and much of Maryland incorporating the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries and other waterways as well as hugging the Atlantic Ocean, our state is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and flooding. If you don’t believe us, just ask businesses and residents in historic Ellicott City, Annapolis City Dock and Ocean City.

Equity for all Marylanders: The burdens of an unreliable public transit system fall hardest on low-income communities, communities of color, people with disabilities and others without access to a vehicle.

According to the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance’s recently released 2020 Transportation Report Card, only 9% of the Baltimore region’s jobs are accessible to its residents relying on public transportation in under an hour. By contrast, 100% of these jobs are accessible within an hour to residents with a car.

This is a stunning disparity that speaks to a major cause of unemployment and poverty for many of the region’s residents. As the report goes on to state, “This indicator tells us whether the region’s public transportation system is helping connect workers with employers. Many low-skill and mid-skill workers do not have a car, which cuts them off from many job opportunities.”

More data comes from the University of Baltimore Jacob France Institute’s Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, which found a strong correlation between neighborhoods where the highest percentage of workers commute at least 45 minutes and neighborhoods showing signs of distress including the highest levels of unemployment, poverty and the lowest life expectancies.

And as we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the “essential workers” whose jobs keep our society functioning rely on public transportation. Data reported by the New York-based Transit Center indicates over a third of hospital and health care workers, grocery store workers, child care providers and nursing care staff get to and from work on transit.

Looking at how Maryland has allocated its Transportation Trust Fund resources during fiscal years 2014 through 2019, we see that 77% of a $3.3 billion capital spending pie has gone to the Maryland State Highway Administration with only 2% going to the Maryland Transit Administration.

Moreover, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s projections in its 2018 capital needs inventory indicate a $2 billion gap between the MTA’s needs and funding projections over the next decade. This includes funds needed for “state of good repair” expenses as well as future “enhancements” for MARC trains, buses, light rail and heavy rail.

And the CMTA’s Report Card references Federal Transit Administration data indicating “MTA’s bus and rail systems have the highest breakdown rates compared to its peer agencies … ranking worst for bus as well as light rail, commuter rail (MARC) and heavy rail major mechanical failures.”

Following release of the DOT’s projections, Del. Brooke Lierman said, “What it shows is what the General Assembly and transportation advocates have been saying for years, which is that the Maryland Department of Transportation is not sufficiently investing in the Maryland Transit Administration’s capital infrastructure.”

The time to act is now. We know that public funding decisions and resource investments are ultimately statements about our collective values and priorities, so we need to ask …

Do we value Maryland’s economic health and competitiveness?

Do we value Maryland’s quality of life and sustainability of our beautiful natural environment?

Do we value all Maryland residents and their need for transportation that enables them to work, access child care, get to medical appointments and buy food for their families?

If so, it’s time for the Maryland General Assembly to step up to the plate in 2021. The General Assembly needs to pass the Transportation Safety and Investment Act which will provide the capital investments necessary to keep MTA’s vehicles and infrastructure in a state of good repair.

And it’s time for Gov. Hogan to walk his economic development talk by allocating funds so that MTA can increase, rather than decrease its service. The money is available from a variety of sources including funds initially set aside to widen I-270 and I-495 in D.C.’s Maryland suburbs, unused funds recently rebated to Maryland by WMATA and Maryland’s remaining funds from the federal government’s CARES Act for COVID relief.

Let’s remember where there’s a will there’s a way. Maryland’s legislators and governor must find the political and moral will to make a way that assures the necessary investments in public transportation.

The future of our beloved state depends on it.

— JOSH TULKIN AND PAUL STURM

The writers are, respectively, state director of the Maryland Sierra Club and chairman of the Downtown Residents Advocacy Network.