Year in and year out, transportation is one of Maryland’s most important issues. It’s the number one source of carbon emissions in the state and over the past decade, it’s been at the center of several heated debates surrounding the construction and cancellation of highways, train lines, and bus systems (Both rapid and otherwise).
A new caucus of legislators plans to work together this year to advance priorities around funding more and better transit, ensuring oversight of highway widening projects, and much more. The Maryland Transit Caucus formally launched with a press conference Wednesday and announced a set of six bills the legislators will champion.
How the caucus came to be
The effort started when Delegate Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City) says she, Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), and a few other like-minded legislators got together to discuss how to spur on more effective transportation legislation, frustrated partly by Governor Larry Hogan’s largely transit-unfriendly policies but also just by the scattered nature of transportation legislation within the Maryland General Assembly.
“Transportation and transit policy and funding are covered in a variety of committees in the House and Senate, so it can be difficult to have a complete picture about what is going on unless you hear the full story,” Lierman said. “The most anti-transit Governor in Maryland’s recent history had just been re-elected and proposed a massive P3 without any real transit component.
“That reality, coupled with the recognition that there was no long-term plan for expanding transit around the state and the role of single-occupancy vehicles in climate change, really propelled us to start thinking bigger about pushing a pro-transit agenda.”
The caucus includes members from central, southern, and western Maryland, as well as the Eastern Shore and greater Washington); at least four state senators and over 45 delegates; and even two Republicans: Paul Corderman, (R-Washington County), and Kevin Hornberger, (R-Cecil).
The caucus narrowed down an initial list of 21 transit-related bills to six:
The Transit Safety and Investment Act/HB368: This bill attempts to avoid the fiscal cliff currently facing the MTA by providing an average increase of $175 million in funding for the agency’s capital needs over the next six years. That means more funding for MARC safety systems and switches, MTA bus shelters, MTA buses, light rail and subway trackage, increasing sustainability within the MTA’s bus fleet, and various other basic but absolutely essential MTA and MARC maintenance needs.
Introduced by Lierman but also featuring 38 other co-sponsors, this bill has not yet been scheduled for an official hearing.
The Public-Private Partnership Reform Act: Taking aim at Governor Larry Hogan’s efforts to push through widenings of 270 and the Beltway, this bill requires environmental impact statements be completed for all public-private partnership (P3) projects before they are presented to the state Board of Public Works for approval, requires legislative approval of any P3 projects larger than $500 million, and sets up a “P3 Oversight Board” for public-private partnership projects.
“This is not about stopping these types of projects,” said sponsor Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery), attempting to head off arguments that the bill might be a direct attempt to halt Hogan’s plans to widen the American Legion Bridge, and pointing out that 10 other states currently have similar laws for P3 oversight. “It’s about ensuring that we have oversight, both environmentally and fiscally, to make sure that our state is in a proper position for years to come to invest in a robust public transit and transportation system.”
The Pedestrian Safety Act: Not to be confused with the similarly named but slightly differently focused Pedestrian Access Act, this bill will be introduced by Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery), who began his presentation at the press conference by reading out the names of six of the 13 pedestrians who died in Montgomery County last year after being struck by drivers and noting the three pedestrian fatalities reported so far in Montgomery County just this month.
The Pedestrian Safety Act would increase the minimum fine for every single “pedestrian-related traffic event” in the State of Maryland (some of which, Stewart noted, are among the lowest in the country), distribute all of the money from those fines to the Pedestrian Safety Fund created by previous legislation passed last year to create pedestrian and cycling infrastructure for state roads, and require the State Highway Administration to prioritize spending that money on projects in locations near schools and school bus stops.
“Nobody should die simply because they’re using their feet to get around,” Stewart said.
The Electric Bus Transition Act/HB432: This bill would prohibit the MTA from purchasing any non-electric buses for its transit bus fleet, starting with the 2022 fiscal year, as well as submitting an annual report to the General Assembly each New Year’s Day from 2021 onwards on the implementation of the Act.
At the press conference, Korman, who will be the primary sponsor, cited Gov. Hogan’s own greenhouse gas emissions plan released last fall and its goal of getting Maryland to an at least 50% electric bus fleet by 2030 as an incentive for passing the Electric Bus Transition Act. “We want to make sure we put these policies into law and not just reflected in reports,” Korman said, also noting that he’s found a crossfiler for the bill, fellow Montgomery County Democrat, Sen. Craig Zucker.
The Southern Maryland Transit Project/HB205/SB105: This bill would require Maryland to pay over the next several years for the final environmental planning phase of the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Project, a proposed transit line, possibly but not necessarily in the form of light rail, between the WMATA Green Line station at Branch Avenue in Prince George’s County and Waldorf in Charles County.
This would allow the Maryland Department of Transportation to finalize the project’s route alignment and mode and unlock the ability to apply for federal funding for the line. At the conference, Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) cited a Bloomberg News study released last February using U.S. Census Bureau data from 2017 which proclaimed Charles County to have the worst (or at least most expensive in terms of commuting costs) traffic in the nation.
“The state has conducted at least five transportation studies in the region, each confirming the next: that the region is in dire need of a mass transit solution,” Davis said, also lamenting Southern Maryland’s position as “next to last” in the transit priorities set by MDOT for this year. Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) will sponsor the bill in the Senate.
The Western Maryland Transit Study: Last but not least, this bill would require MDOT to study the feasibility of expanding commuter rail service further into Western Maryland and Washington County, most likely via the MARC Brunswick Line but also possibly using currently inactive rail lines as well.
“We’re excited for the opportunity this would provide, not only for our residents and the economic and job possibilities in our metropolitan areas,” said Corderman, the primary sponsor. “But we’re just equally as excited for the residents of the central part of the state to come out and see all the great things we have in Western Maryland.”
The press conference also featured statements in support of the Transit Caucus’ goals from some of the outside transportation and environmental advocacy organizations and labor unions the group hopes to align with, including the Greater Washington Partnership, the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, WMATA’s largest transit union. Lierman, Korman, and Solomon all emphasized the caucus’ desire to work with these groups and similar like-minded organizations such as the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and the League of Conservation Voters.