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Advocates urge Md. transit funding boost

Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Donald C. Fry speaks at a news conference Wednesday. (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)

    Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Donald C. Fry speaks at a news conference Wednesday. (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)

ANNAPOLIS — A business advocacy group and elected leaders from counties in the Baltimore metro region voiced support for legislation boosting Maryland public transit funding by $500 million.

Greater Baltimore Committee CEO Donald C. Fry said Wednesday his organization, which represents regional business interests, backs the Transit Investment and Safety Act because the legislation helps balance investment in the state’s transportation system. An emphasis on a well-rounded system is needed, he said, but the state plans to slash roughly $300 million in Maryland Transit Administration funding in the next five years.

“It’s just incredulous to us that you see that sort of cut being made when the needs have been so well expressed and the funding is so inadequate,” Fry said.

The legislation, Senate Bill 424 and House Bill 368, is sponsored by Del. Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore, and Sen. Craig Zucker, D-Montgomery. It requires the governor to provide $500 million from the Transportation Trust Fund to the MTA between 2022 and 2027.

The Maryland Department of Transportation’s current five-year capital program proposes reducing MTA funding from $640.8 million in fiscal year 2021 to as low as $325.8 million by fiscal year 2024.

Funding for the agency, according to Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, is slated to rise to $378.5 million in fiscal year 2025.

The MTA’s funding priorities, Fry said, also buttress a perception in the Baltimore region that a disproportionate amount of transportation investment is directed toward the Washington region while Baltimore’s needs are neglected.

“I think there’s certainly a feeling from our perspective that you see a lot of the major projects occurring in the Washington area. I think, again, that you see that from a legislative perspective as well,” he said.

Maryland’s contribution to the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority under the five-year capital program is also set to increase from $444 million in fiscal year 2021 to $462 million in fiscal year 2025. Maryland has pledged $186 million in fiscal year 2021 to pay for the Purple Line light rail line linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Maryland’s Board of Public Works voted in January to proceed with a plan to expand Interstates 270 and  495 and to replace the American Legion Bridge, all located in the Washington area. The project is expected to cost upwards of $15 billion.

The Department of Transportation’s capital plan, however, does include several major road projects and transit investment in the Baltimore region.

Those projects include a combined $71 million for congestion relief and bridge improvements on Interstate 695; $36 million to widen Route 32 in western Howard County; and $6.3 million for work in Anne Arundel County near Fort Meade.

Maryland also plans to spend $34 million for upgrades to Baltimore’s light rail system; $98 million for improvements to the region’s Metro system; and $54 million in bus procurements.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for the Hogan administration, said the input from GBC and county leaders is appreciated, but he pushed back against assertions Baltimore’s transportation needs are being neglected.

“If this is about balance, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, and Howard County account for nearly 70% of the transportation aid in the governor’s budget. Baltimore City alone receives 10 times more than any other jurisdiction. If this is about projects, the governor’s budget advances the critical Howard Street Tunnel project in Baltimore, which will improve our transportation network and bring thousands of jobs to the region,” Ricci said in an emailed statement.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, and transportation officials from Baltimore and Baltimore County also attended the news conference to advocate for increased transit funding.

Since taking office, Pittman said his administration has tried to limit “suburban sprawl” and emphasize transit-oriented development. Growth opportunities, he said, are in the areas surrounding the counties light rail and MARC stations.

“There are a lot of competing needs. Education is important, health is important, there are a lot of competing needs, and I’m very proud to support (the Transit Investment and Safety Act) to put that stake in the ground and say, ‘We’re not going to leave transit funding behind,'” Pittman said.

Ball said the legislation levels the playing field in terms of providing a dependable and sustainable transportation system for the Baltimore region. Despite the county’s position in between Baltimore and Washington, he said, the only all-day distance transit services is the MARC Camden Line.

Losing $2.5 million in state funds in Maryland Department of Transportation capital program to plan and design improvements along the Route 29 corridor between Howard and Montgomery counties “wasn’t the way we wanted to start the legislative session,” but he expressed optimism that loss wasn’t a fait accompli.

“MTA capital funding support for local system preservation is key, and more state funding and support for transit is a priority. Unfortunately our state support for local transit, even in the more densely populated portions of our county and state, has been flat for many years, far too long,” Ball said.

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