Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Maryland Budget Cuts Spell More Trouble for Transit

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore promised to revive long-neglected transit projects when he took office earlier this year. Instead, he’s now proposing broad-based transportation cuts.

Back in June, Gov. Wes Moore (in profile and red tie) announced he was restarting Baltimore's Red Line transit project, which had been canceled by his predecessor.
Kim Hairston/TNS
In Brief:
  • Maryland Gov. Wes Moore has proposed cutting 8 percent from the state transportation budget amid an expected structural deficit.

  • The cuts would affect roadway expansions, maintenance and transit service.

  • Advocates worry the budget cuts could cut into capital projects, including the Red Line in Baltimore, that the administration intends to protect.

  • Maryland transit advocates hoped the election of Democratic Gov. Wes Moore would help turn the page on decades of disinvestment in public transportation. But less than a year into his term, Moore is proposing steep cuts to the state transportation budget among rising project costs and declining revenues.

    The problems that Maryland is confronting — including higher transportation costs and lower revenues from declining ridership and shrinking gas tax collections — are familiar across the country. But the cuts may be especially painful to advocates in Maryland, who were hopeful that Moore would make good on campaign promises to reinvigorate transit after it was repeatedly squeezed under the previous administration.

    Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the Moore administration was planning to cut 8 percent of the state transportation budget. The cuts, from both the capital and operating budgets, add up to about $3.3 billion in reductions, according to the Associated Press. The proposal would mean funding cuts for everything from highway expansion to road maintenance and transit operations. In an overview of the state’s transportation plan published on Dec. 5, Maryland Secretary of Transportation Paul Wiedefeld wrote that the administration envisions a transportation system that “enhances social equity, environmental protection, sustainable communities and a thriving economy.”

    “However,” Wiedefeld wrote, “the state’s financial headwinds place immense pressure on our ability to deliver this vision.”

    Transit advocates, who felt burned by a series of decisions made by former Gov. Larry Hogan — especially a unilateral decision at the beginning of his tenure to cancel a long-planned Baltimore subway project — acknowledge that Maryland faces funding challenges. Operating costs are rising by 7 percent a year while revenues, like the increasingly weak gas tax, are only increasing 1 percent annually, according to the transportation plan. But they say they’re disappointed in the Moore administration’s approach to the challenge, and suggest the proposed cuts could disproportionately hurt the state’s most vulnerable people.

    “I think many people, myself included, thought we’d be improving transportation in 2024, not fighting to save it from getting worse,” says Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

    2207_Harbor Connector 183.jpg
    A connector bus to the harbor in Baltimore.
    David Kidd/Governing

    Equitable Cuts?  

    It was clear in September, when the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) published a draft financial plan, that there was a growing budget gap. Part of the problem is the increasing cost of capital projects, as inflation and supply chain disruptions have raised the cost of both materials and labor.

    In response to questions from Governing, a spokesman for MDOT said that, based on the size of the budget gap, "reductions solely to the capital budget were untenable." The proposal cuts some transit lines run by the state, but retains service in the Baltimore metropolitan area, the spokesman said.

    "Like many departments of transportation across the country, Maryland’s transportation revenues are being impacted. MDOT's proposed budget makes targeted and balanced reductions to its operating budget and capital program," he said.

    The greater fuel efficiency of cars and the rise of electric vehicles is leading to lower gas tax revenues, which provide the lion’s share of transportation funding in Maryland and elsewhere. Moore has blamed macroeconomic factors and “structural challenges that have plagued our state for years.”

    “Our administration did not create the budget gap,” Moore said at a recent meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo). “But let me be very clear: We refuse to ignore it, and we refuse to push policies that will only make it worse.” The day after Moore’s MACo speech, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) suspended service on Baltimore-area light rail to perform emergency inspections.

    As part of the proposed spending plan, Maryland's Department of Transportation had directed each of its agencies to cut 8 percent of its operating budget. That may seem fair, but O'Malley complains that some parts of the department, including MTA, had already been “cut to the bone” under the Hogan administration. “Applying the same cuts across the board does not affect the agencies evenly,” he says.

    Some Capital Projects on Track

    Under the proposal, some bus lines with lagging ridership would be shut down, according to reports. But the Moore administration says it intends to keep some big capital projects on track. That includes the Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail project that’s scheduled to open in 2027. It also aims to continue work on the Red Line, the Baltimore subway project that Hogan canceled in 2014 (in the process forfeiting hundreds of millions in federal money).

    The Moore administration officially “relaunched” the project over the summer. Although early planning focused on light rail for the east-west transit project, the mode still hasn’t been decided. Some groups, including the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, are pushing for light rail over bus rapid transit, a mode that they fear would be less reliable and have a smaller economic impact on the city.

    “We’ve got a 50- to 70-year decision to make right now, and we can’t afford to get it wrong,” says Samuel Jordan, the coalition’s president.

    Even if the budget proposal is meant to preserve the Red Line and other projects, the broader cuts could affect them indirectly. The project will require federal funding, which is distributed on a competitive basis. State and local matching funds and ridership projections are key components for getting federal help and both could be affected by budget and service cuts, O’Malley says.

    "It’s making some people question: can we afford to expand now?” he says. “People scrutinize spending on transit expansion far more than they scrutinize [highway expansions].”

    Note: This article was updated to correct Samuel Jordan's full name. We regret the error.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
    From Our Partners