The Maryland Transit Administration has a backlog of rehabilitation work for its buses, trains, stations and other assets — work that, combined with ongoing maintenance, would take more than $500 million a year for a decade to complete.

The addition of the future Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail system in suburban Washington, D.C., and the planned Red Line in the Baltimore area, will not make it any easier to get caught up.

The future two systems will add billions of dollars of assets and operating expenses to the MTA’s yearly budgets. They will also require plenty of money to be kept in a “state of good repair,” an industry term for maintaining all its stuff — rail cars, bus doors and even IT software — in proper working order.

State of good repair isn’t just key to making sure there are enough buses or trains to show up on time. It’s a main criteria that the Federal Transit Administration uses when it decides whether to dole out large, competitive grants to local agencies to help expand their transit networks. The MTA will be applying for one to build the Red Line that Gov. Wes Moore revived last year.

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Officials say they are doing what’s necessary to fund the rehab needs and remain in good standing with their federal partners. But while state and local officials recently celebrated the selection of light rail as the transportation mode for the Red Line, they also face the reality of a multibillion-dollar transportation funding hole over the next five years. State lawmakers are looking for new ways to fund major transportation projects in the face of declining gas tax revenues and inflated prices on construction materials.

A profile image of two men and one woman sitting in a line looking to the left side of the frame.
Gov. Wes Moore, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld and Maryland Transit Administrator Holly Arnold listen to remarks at a ribbon cutting for the MTA’s first zero emissions buses at the Kirk Avenue bus depot on Feb. 27, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny)

Even if Maryland gets to build the Red Line, can the state find the money to maintain it?

Kicking the can down the road

The road to last December’s light rail shutdown was paved with former Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s best intentions.

“Our light rail system has assets that in ideal conditions are designed to last 30 to 40 years. But due to how the system was originally constructed and the location of the infrastructure, they’re deteriorating at a much faster rate, causing us to replace them twice as often,” MTA Administrator Holly Arnold told the TRAIN Commission, a state panel tasked with brainstorming for new transportation revenue options, last year.

Some say Schaefer, a former Baltimore mayor, built the existing light rail fast and cheap, eschewing the environmental impact study necessary for federal funds to debut a shiny new train in time for the 1992 baseball season. It allowed baseball fans to head south to the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards via an old freight rail corridor that snaked through sprawling, semideveloped suburbs. Parts of the rail line are still surrounded by trees.

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Six train cars idle on a lattice of train tracks.
Light rail vehicles idle outside the Maryland Transit Administration’s central Baltimore train yard on March 15, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny)

In 2008, so many wet leaves fell onto the light rail tracks that the train wheels ground them into a “gelatinous substance,” The Baltimore Sun reported at the time. It gunked up the wheel wells enough to make the trains’ brakes malfunction. The agency had to shut down the northern half of the line for weeks.

By then, some of the rail cars had been in service for roughly 15 years — about half of their anticipated lifespan.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld, then the MTA administrator, told The Sun that the “midlife overhaul” of the railcars, expected to be done by 2012, would be the ultimate fix for that problem. That kind of rehab work, essentially a complete gutting of the railcar, is both typical and critical to ensure that train cars remain safe and functional during their lifespan, industry experts agree.

By last year, that overhaul, which had started a decade late, still wasn’t finished.

To make matters worse, the company responsible for the rehab — Alstom Transportation Inc. — botched the job, officials said. An electrical fire on a rehabbed train car prompted a full two-week shutdown of the light rail line last December. The railcars are once again deemed safe and functional, but the agency is looking to replace them.

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Late-arriving trains, unreliable buses and broken station elevators can often be traced back to these kinds of decisions, said Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. The MTA — a state agency — and its state of good repair hasn’t been seen as a priority, O’Malley said, with the state not doling out the money needed to keep things in working order.

“The breakdowns that we’re living with today are the results of years of that [decision making],” O’Malley said.

That has often left riders dealing with the consequences.

Sachin Hebbar, who moved to Lutherville in 2011 in part because it was close to a light rail station, said the parking lot used to be packed with commuters’ cars everyday; now, unless the Orioles are in town, he only sees a handful of cars most days. The train used to attract all kinds of riders, now it mostly caters to “those who have no other choice,” he said.

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When trains couldn’t run and the MTA had to use buses to shuttle passengers between affected stops, called a “bus bridge,” some riders never came back.

“The first time there was a bus bridge, there was a huge cliff, people stopped [taking it] and never returned,” Hebbar said.

Fixing the problem

The MTA’s 2022 Capital Needs Inventory, a sweeping summary of the agency’s assets that’s released every three years, estimated it would take $5.1 billion by 2032 to maintain the system. Preliminary estimates for the next inventory, slated for release next year, put that figure at $9.8 billion over 10 years, according to the agency.

It’s not just the light rail. The Metro SubwayLink subway system that connects Owings Mills and downtown has major mechanical issues at a rate higher than most other heavy rail lines in the country — it comprises 37% of that $5.1 billion figure. The MTA runs buses with reinforced frames to handle Baltimore’s roadways — bus service accounts for 29% of the 10-year estimated need.

In 2021, state lawmakers tried to step in. The Transit Safety and Investment Act now mandates that the MTA spend a minimum amount each year on state of good repair. But advocates and analysts have said the minimum required doesn’t meet the rehabilitation needs.

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Eric Norton, a policy director for the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, thought passage of the measure would be “a bridge that would get us to a healthier spot.” Now he’s less confident.

Some advocates say that the system can’t improve until you expand it. Others ask, why expand when you can’t fix what you have?

“You can’t just sort of put all expansion on pause until you solve the state of good repair,” said Jon Laria, who heads the Baltimore Regional Transit Commission, a public-private group that’s exploring, among other things, the idea of spinning off the MTA and making it an independent transit authority. That’s how larger transit agencies, like New York, Philadelphia and Washington, are run.

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

What’s important in Laria’s eyes is for the state to have a plan with reachable goals.

In an interview, Wiedefeld pointed to additional funds that his team has allocated for state of good repair, both in the fiscal year that began July 1 and in the coming years. It’s part of making sure that Maryland is in good standing as it competes for grants for the Red Line, a top priority of Moore and the state’s congressional delegation.

It’s not just getting more money, though.

The MTA’s Arnold said at a state budget hearing earlier this year that the agency has only been spending 60-70% of the money that it was allocated for state of good repair. A variety of factors have hampered efforts: supply chain issues that have lingered since the pandemic and a convoluted state hiring system that has complicated efforts to bring in new employees who can manage some projects.

It also could mean shifting money around with different priorities.

In 2021, Colorado adopted a rule requiring that all projects that widen highways go through an assessment of potential impacts on greenhouse gas emissions. If it would lead to more driving and more emissions, a phenomenon known as “induced demand,” the project could lose funding. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have been shifted from highway expansion into transit and bike projects. Similar legislation almost passed in Maryland last year.

In the Baltimore metro region, hundreds of millions of additional dollars get committed to road and highway expansion each year. Those new lanes also have state-of-good-repair needs, meaning each new road expansion signs the state up for more resurfacing costs.

“Every year people are driving more, every year we’re driving a little further … and it’s not like we solved congestion yet, right?” Norton said. “We need to take a step back, take a look at the system, what our priorities are, and get those set first. And then we can talk about, do we actually need more money, or have we just been spending the money we have inefficiently and ineffectively?”