Tuesday, April 10, 2018

State transportation: Lessons from this legislative session

Pretty much everybody agrees that one of the greatest challenges for the Baltimore Washington Metropolitan area is transportation. As in too much congestion, not enough transit, long commutes and no convincing plans for the future. Employers and employees complain how poor job access hampers economic development and environmentalists and environmental justice advocates agree that poor transportation is a serious equity issue.
lots of harmony in Annapolis.  (Photo: Maryland Reporter)

So how did the Maryland Assembly did on transportation in 2018, now that the legislative session came to an end yesterday? When you look at the local papers, transportation doesn't seem to have been on the agenda. They don't even mention the topic in their list of big wins of this years over 3,000 bills.

On second glance, though, there were some transportation bills and most passed. The tally just lacks the real zingers that would make the public's blood boil.

The biggest transportation impact comes from The Maryland Metro/Transit Funding Act (SB 277/HB 372), a bill that is so complicated that it makes anyone in the Baltimore area yawn except the biggest transit geeks. For one it deals with far away Washington, and two it deals with the "state of good repair", something that becomes only interesting if one gets stranded on a defunct transit line, again and again.  This, of course, is exactly what happened first to the Metro riders in DC and then also to those in Baltimore.
CMTA graphic depicting lopsided transportation expenditures 

Consequently, the bill started out entirely focussed on DC's WMATA and then expanded its scope to include the MTA.  WMATA's needs huge are huge and have been enumerated for some time with a carefully crafted lobbying package of $500 million each year to be scraped together by Maryland, Virginia and the District. Maryland's Governor's entered the deal with an annual offer of $125 million a year. But the bill that passed in the end has Maryland pay a $167 million a year and includes a funding package for MTA and the Baltimore region as well.
For fiscal year 2020, the governor shall include in the state  budget an appropriation from the transportation trust fund for the  operation of the administration that is equal to the appropriation for  the operation of the administration in the fiscal year 2019 state  budget as introduced, increased by at least 4.4%. (b) for each of fiscal years 2021 and 2022, the governor shall include in the state budget an appropriation from the transportation  trust fund for the operation of the administration that is equal to the  appropriation for the operation of the administration in the state budget for the immediately preceding fiscal year, increased by at least 4.4%. (c) (1) for each of fiscal years 2020 through 2022, the governor shall include in the state budget an appropriation for the capital needs of the administration of at least $29,100,000 from the revenues available for the state capital program in the transportation trust fund. (2) the appropriation required under paragraph (1) of this 18 subsection may not supplant any other capital funding otherwise 19 available for the administration. (HB 372 text)
The dynamic of finding at least some balance in the funding request came when  MTA saw itself forced to shut the Baltimore Metro down right in the middle of the initial bill deliberations and when the Baltimore delegation had determined that this region should seek some money as well, even though the MTA did not have a nearly as detailed analysis of their capital and operating needs. The WAMTA bill was amended and with Senator Bill Ferguson and Delegate Brooke Lierman in the lead the MTA will get annual increases of 4.4% and annual capital increases of $29.1 million between FY 2020 and 2022. In turn, the MTA will be obligated to create a detailed needs assessment and the region will prepare a regional transportation plan. The way how the Baltimore region leveraged its way into the bill was a big deal according to Dru Schmidt Perkins, former Director of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, now a consultant who monitored the progress of the bill in Annapolis. There are a number of lessons in this.

  • Collaboration works: Instead of fighting over the money, the two metro regions worked together in forcing the Governor and his road enthusiastic Secretary to direct a reasonable amount of Transportation Trust Fund money into transit so that both rail systems can run in a good state of repair. 
  • An election year is a good time for a big ask: To his credit, the Governor stayed on board with the bill even after the annual expenditure increased. He is poised to sign the bill and managed to look throughout like a reasonable guy when it comes to transit and not like the transit hater who nixed the Baltimore Red Line.
  • Transportation doesn't know jurisdictional boundaries and clearly traverses between Washington and Baltimore, even though the two Metro systems don't connect. 
  • Baltimore is in desperate need of a clear road map for transportation that includes some additional transit. After the Baltimore Red Line was taken off the table no significant new rail systems are on the books, even though the Baltimore region continues to grow. 

The initially pretty flatfooted agenda of transportation activists regarding progress in Annapolis was a bit surprising. MTA, for example, has a pretty well defined plan for the long range development of the MARC commuter service (created in 2013), a fairly low hanging fruit, given the importance of the DC to Washington connection and that there are no other big transit projects, if one doesn't want to consider a hyperloop or MagLev serious contenders. Why did investment into MARC per the long range plan not get more promoted?
MARC plan 

Also, given the big theatrics around the issue of transportation metrics in 2016 which the Governor then called a "road  kill bill" and which transportation activists considered essential in preventing that Secretary Rahn would spend all the money in the Transportation Trust Fund on roads and extra lanes, it was surprising the topic totally disappear in this year's session. The 1000 Friends of Maryland made a substantial contribution towards appropriate metrics in this report. MDOT developed its own scoring model here. The methods of measuring the effectiveness of proposed investments is important enough. It deserves its own article.

Lastly, if one looks at Maryland's session in the context of the recently approved federal budget, it is urgent that the State and the local jurisdictions line up  what the major transportation programs should be. Washington left transportation spending programs not only intact but added money. The new federal appropriation bill, enacted March 23, provides over $86 billion for the U.S. Department of Transportation which represents an increase of almost $10 billion over DOT’s  current funding levels. Funding increases spread over road, transit, and rail programs and include programs that seemed in jeopardy such as the Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER), Transit Capital Investment Grants program (CIG), and Amtrak. (source, Smart Growth America)

This region has a big dog in the race. But sometimes one would hardly know it. Hopefully the mandated new regional plan will provide the needed perspective.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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