When former Gov. Larry Hogan canceled Baltimore’s long-anticipated Red Line in 2015, it opened a can full of what-ifs.

Would this have happened with a Democrat in office? What if governors before Hogan had made Baltimore’s east-west transit corridor more of a priority and moved on the light rail project right after it was proposed years earlier?

Similar musings were front of mind for Tony Bridges, a Maryland assistant transportation secretary, when he opened the inaugural meeting of the Baltimore Regional Transit Commission on Friday. Addressing the group he helped assemble, Bridges invoked the 2015 Red Line experience to pose a key question: Should Baltimore have more of a say over local transit decisions?

“Maybe if we had a commission like this, we wouldn’t have to fight so hard,” Bridges said. Through the window of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council’s third-floor Locust Point offices, cars and trucks zoomed along an elevated stretch of Interstate 95.

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Two men in suit jackets sit and talk at a table in front of a window.
Tony Bridges, a Maryland assistant transportation secretary, speaks with fellow commissioner and chairman Jon Laria at the Feb. 2, 2024 meeting of the Baltimore Regional Transit Commission. (Daniel Zawodny)

The 16 commissioners, appointed by Gov. Wes Moore and the top officials in Baltimore and several counties, are charged with providing input, oversight and advocacy to the Maryland Transit Administration. Legislation creating the commission was passed last year after Hogan vetoed an earlier push to do so.

Appointees span the worlds of government and business, representing the interests of both riders and investors. Jon Laria, a Baltimore attorney and the panel’s newly appointed chair, hopes their work can “drive policy and investment.”

Besides the Charm City Circulator, a free bus service run by the city Department of Transportation, Baltimore does not make its own transit choices or control any purse strings. It’s another way that Baltimore City is unusual among cities — the vast majority of its buses and trains are run by the state-level MTA. Transit advocates have long criticized this model, saying it allows for unilateral decision making, like a governor canceling a fully funded mass transit line with a single stroke of a pen. That is what Hogan, a Republican, did in 2015 to the Red Line.

Moore has since revived the project, and state officials are studying whether it should be a rapid bus or light rail service.

The debate over the state’s role comes as Maryland faces a roughly $3 billion gap in funding for its six-year transportation plan.

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Although local government and business leaders agree that expanding Baltimore’s transit network is critical to a thriving metro area, revenue from the primary source of funding for transportation projects is declining.

There are successes to celebrate, MTA Administrator Holly Arnold stressed: Agency vacancies are down, and her team has better organized and more accurate data than ever before. She said the MTA also has clear sense of the condition of major assets — most buses are in good shape, the north-south light rail needs some track work, and the new Metro subway cars will be a welcome sight.

A close up photo of a woman standing and speaking at a podium while a television in the background displays virtual meeting attendees on platform Zoom.
MTA Administrator Holly Arnold highlights recent successes and challenges for her agency at the Feb. 2, 2024 meeting of the new Baltimore Regional Transit Commission. (Daniel Zawodny)

But there are also major challenges to face: her agency is dealing with a long backlog of major rehabilitation work to the tune of nearly $2 billion across all transportation modes. Operating costs have gone up as the agency raises wages to attract workers. And building transit in the United States is costing more than ever before.

Laria stressed that Baltimore is at an inflection point.

“I don’t see us sitting by idly waiting for someone else to solve this problem,” Laria said. “We need acceleration, not restoration.”

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A man dressed in a shirt, tie and jacket sits at a table in front of a window looking to the left.
Baltimore attorney Jon Laria was selected to chair the new Baltimore Regional Transit Commission. The panel held its inaugural meeting Feb. 2, 2024 at the headquarters of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. (Daniel Zawodny)

Though Friday’s meeting marked a milestone in efforts to improve Baltimore transit planning, the state still controls the purse strings. All eyes are on the General Assembly as lawmakers take up the latest round of bills meant to bring in more revenue for transportation.

Some, like a proposal to increase registration fees for electric vehicles, follow the recent short-term recommendations of another commission, which is working through 2024 to concoct new ways to shore up the transportation trust fund.

Still, Laria knows that any work that his group makes today could have a lasting impact on tomorrow. He hopes to build on that energy at the commission’s next meeting in March.

“We’re here, we’re not going anywhere, and we hope to have a significant impact on the landscape,” Laria said.