Maryland transportation projects could be delayed and local commuter bus service and roadway maintenance face significant cuts as a result of a more-than-$3 billion shortfall in funding the state’s six-year transportation plan, state officials said Tuesday.
Rising costs and dwindling revenue streams have contributed to the gap in funding the $21.2 billion draft plan, which will mean 8% cuts to operating budgets and 30% cuts to maintenance spending in many transportation agencies over the six-year span, officials said. The only agency to be spared is the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates highway toll stations and funds itself through toll revenue.
Maryland residents will feel the cuts in a range of ways:
- For the fiscal year that begins July 1, the Motor Vehicle Administration will discontinue Saturday hours and impose a hiring freeze.
- Commuter bus service offered by the Maryland Transit Administration will be cut, while assistance for locally operated transit systems such as Baltimore County’s Towson Loop will be reduced by 40%. Trips on the MARC train’s Brunswick Line that runs to West Virginia will also be limited.
- The State Highway Administration will have to limit trash and litter pickup, guardrail replacement and other minor maintenance costs.
“None of these are decisions we want to make, but ones we have to make,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner on Tuesday.
Wiedefeld stressed that Baltimore’s “core” MTA service will be unaffected, and that money committed to project development for the Red Line ― the east-west transit line recently revived by the administration of Gov. Wes Moore — would be maintained. And massive projects with federal commitments, such as Amtrak’s plan to build a new $6 billion tunnel for passenger rail service beneath West Baltimore, will similarly not be affected.
Still, the projected shortfall will surely be the focus of debate after state lawmakers return to Annapolis next year.
“We knew this was coming,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson. “We have to live within our means. Right now, we have sufficient funding to maintain our infrastructure, not expand it. If we want to enhance our transportation system, we have to find a way to prioritize and pay for it.”
The Consolidated Transportation Program, the state’s six-year transportation spending vision, is updated annually and voted on during the General Assembly’s spring legislative session. Wiedefeld and other state officials recently completed a statewide tour to present details of a draft program that covers everything from highway and transit expansion projects to large capital infusions for system maintenance and overhaul.
The shortfall has ballooned by roughly $1.2 billion since the release of the draft budget due to additional commitments for the proposed Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program in West Baltimore; Washington’s Metro system; and the new Montgomery County to Prince George’s County light rail Purple Line, which is currently under construction and the budget fully funds.
The final six-year plan will contain $652 million less for the MTA for capital project maintenance, meaning the agency will have to delay the replacement of some buses and light rail and Metro rail cars. It also cuts nearly $1.5 billion from highway expansion.
The Maryland Department of Transportation said in a news release that the budget cuts will be incorporated into the final CTP “while maintaining an essential focus on safety, maintenance and strategic investment.”
“The updated program retains project development funds for Baltimore’s Red Line, Southern Maryland Rapid Transit, the Frederick Douglass Tunnel Project, the replacement American Legion Bridge and other key projects,” the news release said.
The state budget squeeze comes even as the federal government makes marquee investments in infrastructure thanks to a $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in 2021.
“The primary driver is the operating costs of the department are increasing significantly higher than our revenue growth, roughly 7 to 1,” said Wiedefeld, a former general manager and CEO at Metro.
He described the budget shortfall as more complex than just not having enough money to complete a series of projects. Costs associated with inflation are largely what’s driving those operating budgets higher.
“This is a different animal,” Wiedefeld said.
Wiedefeld serves with state lawmakers, business representatives and others on the Maryland Commission on Transportation Revenue and Infrastructure Needs, also known as the TRAIN Commission, which is developing a series of recommendations that it will release soon to address the funding woes. The recommendations could include changes to the state’s transportation trust fund, which is largely funded by gas tax revenue, in decline as motorists drive more fuel-efficient cars or electric vehicles.
The transportation secretary told The Banner that his department has identified some quick-hit revenue boosters such as increasing fees for certain MVA services and for parking at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, but that much more is needed to provide long-term solutions.
The Moore administration has been promoting its plan to local, state and federal officials in recent weeks.
U.S. Rep. David Trone expressed concern about plans to nix some road projects partially funded by the federal infrastructure bill and reassign those federal dollars to “backfill” the state transportation budget, according to a letter obtained by The Banner.
”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,” Trone, a Western Maryland Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, wrote Wiedefeld on Tuesday.
Twelve major highway expansion projects partially funded by the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are set for the chopping block. Trone objected to cutting safety improvements slated for a stretch of Interstate 81 in his district that has a high rate of crashes. Other nixed highway expansion projects include the planned widening of I-795 at the Dolfield Boulevard interchange in Baltimore County, work along U.S. 15 in Frederick County from I-70 to Maryland highway 26 and congestion management along I-97 from U.S. 50 to state highway 32.
Projects under construction will not be affected, Wiedefeld emphasized, but expansion projects not advertised by Jan. 1 have been cut. And federal dollars slated for eliminated projects have been reassigned.
While Moore’s transportation team has been making the rounds, Republican leaders in the General Assembly said they feel left out. They scheduled a tentative meeting for Wednesday, according to Del. Jason Buckel of Allegany County, the minority leader of the House of Delegates.
Buckel questioned why state transportation officials bothered to do their fall “road show” to all 24 jurisdictions of the state — holding public meetings and outlining future plans — only to quickly turn around with a roster of cuts and postponements.
”It’s a little disingenuous to conduct all those meetings and then make dramatic changes,” Buckel said. “The county executives, county officials, the legislators who participate from each county and district around the state — if they knew that this was what they were promising, then that would be the focus of the meetings.”
The state DOT, he said, “avoided a lot of the hard questions and answers by doing it this way.”
Buckel said he’s concerned about the elimination of highway improvements, which could affect every part of the state, not just road-dependent rural areas like his. And, he said, he’ll keep an eye out for proposed changes to the portion of the gas tax that gets sent to counties and cities to help pay for local road maintenance.
State Sen. Cory McCray, a Democrat who represents East Baltimore and Northeast Baltimore, said the proposed cuts “risk doing more harm to the well-being and livelihood of all Marylanders, especially those in the Baltimore Region.” He said he is concerned about what they could mean for Baltimore’s economic growth.
McCray also warned that MTA funding cuts could “pit region against region” while asking “Baltimore City to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of today’s fiscal realities,” he said, referring to the state’s commitments to the Washington area’s Metro system.
Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia share the costs of funding the Metro system, which is studying service cuts as it faces a reported $750 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2025. MDOT expects to be responsible for about $150 million per year in fiscal years 2025 and 2026, Wiedefeld said, under the shared funding structure to which MDOT is committed.
“We can’t walk away from the investments in the Washington region system, and what it means for not only Prince George’s, Montgomery County and the surrounding counties but for the state of Maryland,” he said. “That is a very large part of the economy.”
Members of the General Assembly’s Transit Caucus said in a joint statement that they were “extremely disappointed” in the nearly $1 billion in cuts to transit, bicycle and pedestrian investments.
“MDOT is disproportionately harming those who can least afford any alternatives. These cuts are also shortsighted, making it more difficult for our state to fight climate change and meet our carbon reduction targets,” the statement continued.
Reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this story.