Maryland congressional delegation requests $32 billion more relief funding for U.S. transit systems
Colin Campbell, The Baltimore Sun
Maryland’s congressional delegation is asking for an additional $32 billion in coronavirus relief funding for U.S. public transit systems — and for a larger share to go to transit systems serving mid-sized cities, such as Baltimore, where people depend heavily on the regional buses and trains.
Public transit is an essential government service, and additional aid “is necessary to sustain operations across the country,” U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin and U.S. Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Kweisi Mfume and John Sarbanes said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Friday.
“This additional funding will help prevent cuts to service and potential layoffs of local government employees and ensure that essential workers can continue to get to their jobs,” the letter said.
The $392 million in funding the Maryland Transit Administration received from the CARES Act is expected to run out in September. With revenues from taxes, fees and transit fares down significantly during the pandemic, the agency faced a $550 million shortfall at the end of the last fiscal year — and it expects another one just as large in the next year.
A lack of additional funding could jeopardize the transit system that riders “have come to depend on as safe, reliable and equitable,” said Maryland Transit Administration Administrator Kevin Quinn.
‘‘Public transit plays a vital role — and for many riders, an irreplaceable role — in connecting them to jobs, healthcare and education,’’ Quinn said.
The congressional delegation’s request for funding joined a chorus of calls from transit advocates, who say funding is critical for the future of the MTA and other public transit systems across the country.
If the MTA does not receive additional federal help, the agency will be forced to implement drastic cuts before the end of the year, according to the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a group that advocates on behalf of transit riders.
“Transit is part of the social fabric of greater Baltimore,” said Brian O’Malley, president and CEO of the transportation alliance. An investment of $32 million to $36 million in transit, he said, “is an investment in a greener, more equitable, and sustainable economy.”
The HEROES Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate, would provide a combined $15.75 billion to transit agencies across the country.
But the MTA would receive no money from it, because the bill requires most of the money to be distributed to the nation’s largest transit systems based on population, not ridership. The Baltimore area falls shy of the population requirement of 3 million, with 2.2 million residents in the greater metropolitan area.
The HEROES Act “included many critical provisions for American families, but as the pandemic continues, it is clear that the funding level for transit is too low and the distribution mechanism is flawed,” the congressional delegation wrote in its letter.
The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and other transit advocates denounced a subsequent aid proposal by the White House and Republican Senate leadership that “threatens to decimate regional public transit systems” by offering no additional money for public transit, the group said.
Spokespeople for Senate and House leadership did not respond to requests for comment.
Nearly 40% of people who commute by transit in Baltimore are essential workers, whose reliance on public transit hasn’t changed while others have been able to work from home during the pandemic, according to the transportation alliance.
Nationally, Black workers are disproportionately represented among essential workers, and Black and Latino workers are more than twice as likely as whites to rely on public transportation to get to work, the alliance said.
The Center for Urban Families helps as many low-income Baltimoreans as possible obtain cars through a partnership with Vehicles for Change, said Joseph Jones, CFUF president and CEO.
“But the need is greater,” Jones said. “People need the public transportation system to improve their ability to get to job opportunities, not cut back.”
The MTA also employs about 3,300 people, many of them African-American, and provides benefits such as tuition reimbursement for people without college degrees.
“While the CARES act provided relief, ridership has been down and transit agencies are suffering,” said John Costa, International President of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents more than 200,000 transit workers including the MTA and WMATA, in the U.S. and Canada.
“This could mean lost jobs and riders losing their lifeline. We call on Congress ... to keep the buses rolling in Maryland and communities across the country — safely.”