Marylanders are facing an alarming transportation funding gap that hits Baltimore’s regional transit hard. In December, state residents learned of $3.3 billion in proposed cuts to the state’s multi-year transportation budget, including more than a half-billion dollars for the Maryland Transit Administration alone.

While Gov. Wes Moore has proposed a $150 million overall restoration of transportation funds for just the coming fiscal year, only a portion would go to MTA, and only a portion of that to MTA Baltimore-area core transit operations. MTA is also building the Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and runs other services outside Baltimore.

While the governor’s partial restoration of funds is certainly welcome, we badly need acceleration of investment, not just restoration of proposed cuts. In fact, in 2022, the MTA estimated its capital needs at $512 million annually merely to maintain a “state of good repair” for existing facilities and equipment. That doesn’t include the promised east-west Red Line, the Purple Line or other needs beyond “state of good repair.” It also doesn’t account for increasing costs and the effect of inflation, which may double the number. And while all transit advocates should applaud the state’s increased funding for the Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority, we should be seeing similar support for MTA in Baltimore.

The Baltimore Regional Transit Commission, which met for the first time on Feb. 2, will help lead efforts to secure the support the Baltimore region’s transit systems need. Established by the governor and General Assembly in 2023, the commission’s mandate is to advocate for our underfunded and neglected transit network and to increase accountability from those running it.

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The MTA is one of the largest operators of public transportation in the nation. But until now, it has operated without an oversight board or any direct connection to local governments and other interested parties. With both public-sector and private-sector membership from Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, the commission will play that important role.

The commission and other transit allies face a daunting fiscal picture.

By now, most Baltimoreans and Marylanders do not need to be convinced of the value of investing in transit. A modern transit system moves people efficiently, takes cars off our crowded streets and anchors economic development. Transit is a lifeline for residents who don’t have or can’t afford a car, allowing them access to work, school and essential services, including groceries and medical care. Even at the height of the pandemic, transit carried essential personnel to work, and even as the pandemic has abated, remote work will not exempt many workers from jobs that require in-person attendance.

Transit is also a proven economic development tool. Relocating businesses put readily available and efficient transit toward the top of their list. Younger workers, who will be the majority of the workforce in a decade and who are more likely to disfavor car ownership, place a premium on good transit when deciding where to live and work. Every dollar invested in transit generates $5 for the local economy and, across the country, every $1 billion invested in transit means 50,000 jobs.

Transit-oriented development, which is being rebooted by the Moore administration in partnership with local governments, depends on proximity to high-quality transit for the development of mixed-use, mixed-income communities. That kind of development brings vitality, enhanced access and much-needed tax and other revenues to the state and its localities.

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And yet, amazingly, we have not built a rail line in Baltimore in more than 30 years. Baltimore Link, former Gov. Larry Hogan’s bus-based consolation prize after canceling the Red Line, has been a band-aid at best. The recent temporary shutdown of the Light Rail system highlighted its age and state of disrepair.

On the bright side, the MTA has made progress in filling vacancies amid a nationwide shortage of operators and a highly competitive labor market. The agency has worked to boost support for frontline employees and has developed a Customer Experience Dashboard to share more performance information. The fleet has slowly begun to modernize, deploying its first zero-emission buses and planning for new light rail cars.

The leadership is there, too. The state’s transportation department and MTA have strong and experienced administrators. The local governments are fully engaged. Legislative leaders have created the Transportation Revenue and Infrastructure Needs Commission, whose charge is to identify new ways of funding transportation and transit in Maryland. And most of all, as recently as in the governor’s State of the State Address, he has made it clear that fixing the state’s outdated transportation funding system is a top priority.

The Baltimore Regional Transit Commission joins the fray at a critical juncture and promises both zealous advocacy for our transit system and real accountability from it. Neither will be enough, however, unless our leaders provide the resources to build and sustain the high-quality transit system our region truly deserves.

Jon Laria is chair of the Baltimore Regional Transit Commission.

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