The Baltimore Regional Transportation Board voted on Tuesday to solidify both its short- and long-term laundry lists of projects — including everything from highway expansion to public transportation revamps — despite strong opposition from transit advocates.
The board’s 10 voting members — which include a representative from each of the six counties surrounding Baltimore, a representative of the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), representatives for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley, and one for a local transit agency — voted to approve the two plans by near-unanimous consent.
Carroll County representative Mary Lane was not in attendance and did not record a vote. All present representatives voted yes on both plans.
Resilience 2050: Adapting to the Challenges of Tomorrow is the board’s latest $70 billion megaplan that will serve as gatekeeper for any regional transportation project that hopes to receive federal money in the coming decades. The extensive list of line items includes everything from the Red Line to highway widening.
But many transit advocates sigh at what they see as a plan biased toward highways and cars. At what many consider a critical moment for Maryland, and in particular Baltimore — transit-friendly Democrats lead the White House, State House and City Hall — advocates worry that Baltimore will miss its chance to build a more equitable, sustainable transportation environment.
I thought Baltimore’s transit decisions weren’t made locally?
Federal law requires that major metropolitan areas have a regional transportation board that periodically creates a long-range transportation plan and a short-term transportation improvement plan. The plans focus only on projects that need federal funding.
Though Baltimore City has no locally controlled board that makes direct funding decisions for CityLink buses, light rail and more, the mayor has a seat on the regional board because if a project wants federal dollars, it must be in the regional board’s plan.
The board’s long-term plan includes requests for federal money for new buses and light rail cars for Baltimore. But if the city wants state money for those projects sooner, that’s up to Gov. Wes Moore and the state Department of Transportation.
The board creates a new short-term plan every year that includes new projects and rollovers from previous years. They release a new long-term plan every four years.
So what are in the plans?
The short-term plan that projects out to 2027 has a price tag of roughly $4.2 billion with 63% of that total cost going to highway preservation and expansion. The short-term plan contains no money for new transit projects, and roughly $787 million, or 18.5%, for preservation of existing transit systems.
In a comment letter submitted to the board in June and signed by 16 other area organizations, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance objected to the new highway expansion projects, saying “trying to widen our way out of congestion is a proven failed strategy.”
Thirty-five of the 143 projects within the short-term plan are slated for Baltimore, including $11 million to make the sidewalks along West North Avenue compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The majority of the projects will be for road repaving and fixing bridges, and just three are dedicated to bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure.
Eric Norton, director of policy and programs for CMTA, also takes issue with the long-term plan and said it is “disheartening” that officials prioritize highways over transit year after year.
He noted a part of the report that said that by 2050, the region will not see any growth in transit ridership, and people will spend more time sitting in traffic.
“What are we spending this money for if we are not improving transportation outcomes for people in the region?” asked Norton.
Todd Lang, director of transportation planning for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, defended the plan to The Baltimore Banner a day prior to the vote Monday. He said it has twice as much funding for expanding public transit as its 2019 predecessor. He added at the hearing Tuesday that every potential transit expansion plan proposed by regional officials was included.
“The board hears the public’s frustration that we can’t move faster on transit,” Lang said on Tuesday. “It’s a frustration felt across the country.”
Lang also noted that the board changed some criteria for how it prioritizes projects since the last process. Equity was a new priority and projects benefiting underserved groups were given additional weighting.
Some of the comments submitted online to the board ahead of the meeting expressed climate concerns, suggesting that highway expansion would make air quality worse across the region, harming vulnerable groups and people with asthma. Board officials responded by noting the state’s strict car emissions standards. They also highlighted the plan’s data modeling that suggests the region will be compliant with federal air quality guidelines through 2050.
The majority of the $70 billion in the long-term plan goes to operating costs and system preservation. Roughly $12 billion is slated for expansion, with just shy of $5 billion of that going to public transit expansion.
The roughly dozen members of the public who addressed the board on Tuesday all expressed negative sentiments toward the plans, with some urging the board to delay the vote. Michael Scepaniak, who works with advocacy organization Strong Towns Baltimore, called moving forward with the vote “tantamount to ignoring the will of the public.”
And what about the Red Line, which was canceled by former Gov. Larry Hogan and revived by Gov. Wes Moore? It’s in the plan, too. A line item on page 11 of the long-term plan called the East-West Transit Corridor estimates a $1.8 billion price tag for a “new east-west transit service to connect major Baltimore region destinations.”
Lang says that there’s nothing to read into with the difference in estimated cost from a few years ago when the original Red Line project estimated around $3 billion. The planners simply used one of MTA’s seven Red Line alternatives to determine the smaller price tag.
“It does not preclude other alternatives,” said Lang, who noted that final details and dollar amounts could be amended in later plans. “Basically, this early in the process, the federal government just wants to make sure there’s a candidate project.”
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.