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County, state leaders lash out at $3.3 billion in transportation cuts

Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

County officials and legislators are lashing out at a plan to cut billions in transportation projects across the state.

State Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld, in an interview Tuesday, said the department is forced to address $3.3 billion in shortfalls. To close the gap over the current six-year spending plan, the agency will impose across the board budget cuts, hiring freezes, fee and parking rate increases as well as defer hundreds of millions in projects across the state.

“This is not a new problem for our state,” Wiedefeld said. “In 2020, the Department of Legislative Services identified that Maryland’s transportation program had a structural issue with operating costs increasing faster than overall revenues. Since 2020, these issues have been exacerbated by historic inflation impacting labor and materials costs, depleted COVID-19 relief funding, and the gradual decline of transportation’s largest revenue source – motor fuel tax revenue.”

To close the gap, the department will cut roughly $1 billion from its operating budget. Another $2 billion will be cut from its capital budget. Local governments will see a $400 million reduction.

In an interview with Maryland Matters, Wiedefeld said his department will look to increase fees at the Motor Vehicle Administration as well as increase parking rates at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. The changes could bring in an additional $80 million, a fraction of what is needed.

“Some of it’s nickels and dimes, to be frank,” Wiedefeld said in describing fees the department could increase on its own. “It’s $1 at the port. Some tipping fees and some relatively minor things. The big availability of funds is in MVA and parking at the airport, because that’s where you have the biggest sources.”

Wiedefeld said the fee increases still leave “a very large hole” that needs to be closed.

“So, then you look at the operating budget,” he said. “So, then you say, Okay, well, let’s reduce across all modes 8%. So basically, what we said to each mode — meaning the airport, transit, MVA highways — you all manage your budgets, reduce it by 8%.”

That will include hiring freezes, Wiedefeld said. That move comes at a time when Gov. Wes Moore (D) has vowed to “rebuild state government” by filling an estimated 10,000 state worker vacancies.

Moore has already fallen behind the pace needed to reach his goal of 5,000 new employees hired in his first year.

The agency will also make cuts to transit, according to Wiedefeld, including:

  • Reductions in commuter bus service.
  • A 40% cut in state aid to locally operated transportation systems.
  • State aid for local road projects through Highway User Revenue will be flat-funded at the current level.
  • Reductions in MARC commuter rail service.
  • Reductions in maintenance of roads and guardrails.
  • Reductions in highway litter removal and grass cutting.
  • Cuts to maintenance of buses and commuter rail equipment.

Wiedefeld said current budget constraints limit some transit improvements, particularly in Baltimore, that would improve the quality of service. Those efforts cannot be paid for now. Maintenance to improve safety would be prioritized, he said.

“If there’s an imminent safety issue. We just do it,” he said.

Transportation on the minds of county leaders

Details of the reductions come as officials from the state’s 24 major political subdivisions gather in Cambridge to discuss the upcoming General Assembly session at the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) winter conference.

Transportation officials and Moore are expected to attend.

“I have been engaged in conversations with the governor, lieutenant governor, and their team regarding the challenges with MDOT Funding. We understand the need to ensure Maryland has an adequate transportation system while also balancing our current fiscal realities,” said Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D), who is also president of MACo. “As MDOT and the General Assembly consider cuts to our transportation system, I continue to urge them to prioritize and sustain funding for basic system preservation and operations, which includes grant funding to local government and critical state system safety projects that address the increase in injuries and fatalities on our roads.”

Reaction from local and federal elected officials has been mixed, ranging from optimism that deep cuts can be averted to concern about current proposals to close the shortfall.

“It is evident this administration inherited challenges from the previous administration, but we believe funding cuts that shortchange residents in Baltimore County – and across the entire Baltimore region – should not be the solution,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. (D).

In western Maryland, Frederick County Executive Jessica Fitzwater (D), vowed to fight to retain funding for projects in her county.

“From daily commutes to high-profile incidents like the tanker explosion in March, the US 15 project has a very real and direct impact on the quality of life in Frederick County and all of Western Maryland,” Fitzwater said. “Furthermore, the decision to abandon the expansion of MARC service along the Brunswick line does damage to our shared transit goals.”

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) and leaders of some of the state’s larger jurisdictions have excused Moore from blame. Instead, many are content to point the finger at Hogan, the Republican former governor, and Wiedefeld.

“The person who is delivering the message is not the governor, it has been Secretary Wiedefeld,” said Sen. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore). “He’s got to be able to articulate it. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks.”

Even as Wiedefeld discusses plans to balance the transportation budget, counties still await an updated version of the state’s six-year Consolidated Transportation Plan.

The agency has produced a plan that has a $2.1 billion gap between proposed projects and available funding. It is the first time in the history of the spending plan that an agency has produced one that is unbalanced.

Wiedefeld said it is likely that a balanced proposal will not be available before a deadline to deliver the budget to the General Assembly in January.

“We remain optimistic that we can continue working with the Moore administration and legislative leaders to ensure that Baltimore County and our region are more equitably supported in the final CTP submission to the General Assembly in January and in the years ahead,” Olszewski said.

Legislators take issue with cuts

State lawmakers were also taken aback by the cuts.

McCray said the proposal is potentially devastating for Baltimore and other areas.

“The spending cuts outlined by the Maryland Department of Transportation risk doing more harm to the well-being and livelihood of all Marylanders, especially those in the Baltimore region,” McCray said. “If passed in its current form it would undermine the Baltimore Region’s economic recovery and economic growth for years to come.”

McCray said the proposal “pits region against region and asks Baltimore city to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of today’s fiscal realities. This simply must not happen.”

The proposal was also panned by the legislature’s Transit Caucus.

“As leaders of the bipartisan and bicameral Maryland Transit Caucus, we are extremely disappointed in the dramatic cuts made in the updated final draft Consolidated Transportation Plan (CTP) released by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT). In cutting nearly $1 billion from transit, bicycle, and pedestrian investments, MDOT is disproportionately harming those who can least afford any alternatives,” the caucus said in a statement. “These cuts are also shortsighted, making it more difficult for our state to fight climate change and meet our carbon reduction targets. Our state CTP should be a reflection of our values and our goals for the future, and this falls short. We call on MDOT and the Moore Miller Administration to honor their commitments and engage in a serious conversation with communities across the state in raising the necessary resources to move Maryland’s infrastructure into the 21st century.”

‘This is a reality check’

Others, such as Pittman, said the news was not unexpected and held out hopes it could be avoided.

“I do think it’s important to note that the sky is not falling,” Pittman said. “This is a reality check on where things stand. Now, we’ve got to put our minds together and our commitment together and decide whether or not we want to create the revenue to fix it.”

Pittman called for “revenue enhancements” including a tax on high-income earners in the state as a way to ease the cuts.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) said the cuts were no more than a manufactured doomsday scenario.

“This is a script of a bad movie that we’ve seen over and over again,” said Hershey, who is a member of the Transportation Revenue and Infrastructure Needs Commission. “They come out and they claim that they don’t have enough money to do something. Then they want to put it back on the legislature and say you’re going to have to be the ones to solve the problems.”

The solution, he said, is inevitable tax or fee increases.

The TRAIN Commission on which Hershey serves is tasked with modernizing how the state replenishes the dedicated fund that pays for road and transit projects. The panel is also expected to recommend changes to how the Department of Transportation prioritizes road and transit projects.

Frank Principe, chair of the commission, is asking the panel to include recommendations setting new fees for owners of electric and hybrid vehicles and raising tolls on out-of-state motorists.

The interim report will be discussed at a meeting next week. The panel is expected to continue its work through 2024.

‘Devastating consequences’ for Marylanders

Rep. David Trone (D-6th), in a letter to Wiedefeld that was obtained by Maryland Matters, expressed concern about cuts to projects, some which directly impact his district and others that were to receive significant federal funding though the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

A spokesperson for Trone was not available for comment.

In the letter, Trone expressed concern that “the direction MDOT is pursuing will have devastating consequences for all Marylanders.”

Maryland is slated to receive $1.3 billion in federal funding for 33 highway projects, eight new transit projects and 15 aviation projects. All of the highway projects were fully funded in the design and engineering and construction phases.

Wiedefeld said the state will continue to provide state matching money for projects that have federal funding.

“You don’t walk away from federal money,” he said.

Trone, in his letter, said he is concerned that Wiedefeld’s plan to close the gap will strip funding from many of those projects.

“Specifically, the plan would reallocate non-discretionary funds from 12 of the 33 approved priority roadway projects, reduce transit services, and cut maintenance projects,” Trone wrote. “This is unacceptable, and inconsistent with the intent of the law as the Biden-Harris administration has clearly stated its goal of rebuilding our country’s ailing infrastructure from the inside out.”

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County, state leaders lash out at $3.3 billion in transportation cuts