Md. shifts tack on transit policy

Top officials directing $340 million entirely toward mass transit

July 30, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

In a shift away from highways-first transportation policies, top elected officials in the Baltimore region have decided to direct about $340 million in previously unallocated revenue over 20 years entirely toward mass transit projects.

The action by the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board comes in response to protests from citizen advisers and transit advocates that its previous long-range plan, called Transportation Outlook 2035, was too heavily weighted in favor of road projects.

The board is recognized by the federal government as the chief planning body for transportation in the Baltimore metropolitan region. Its members include the mayors of Baltimore and Annapolis, the Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard county executives, the Carroll County commissioners and state transportation officials.

The money comes primarily from Gov. Martin O'Malley's 2007 package of revenue increases from such sources as the vehicle titling tax and corporate taxes. The added revenue from that package had not previously been factored into the regional board's long-range plans.

In a vote last week, the board determined that all of the added funds should go to short- and long-term transit projects, a shift in priorities that officials said reflects concerns about air pollution, gasoline prices and dependence on fossil fuels.

"People are really interested in taking mass transit," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, the board's chairman. Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the state Transportation Department, said its representatives on the board supported the move at the direction of O'Malley and Secretary John D. Porcari.

"We support the BRTB's decision. It is a recognition of the region's need for better transit," Cahalan said. "It is a starting point, is what it comes down to."

Cahalan said the decision will add an average of $20 million per year to the money available for capital spending on transit projects. But he noted that state dollars can be used to leverage federal funds for transit projects. Ulman said that with the growing cost of road projects, the regional leaders decided to get "more bang for our buck" by focusing on transit projects.

He said the decision was supported by all of the region's jurisdictions, even those in which the impact of transit has traditionally been limited.

Ulman said the added money could be used for a variety of purposes, including mega-projects such as an extension of Baltimore's subway toward Morgan State University or improvements to the MARC commuter train system. And he said it also could pay for smaller but important projects such as the expansion of park-and-ride lots or creation of a new transit hub as part of the redevelopment of downtown Columbia.

The board said it will use a three-part process to seek public input on the specific projects to be added to the long-range plan. It will meet with its citizens advisory committee, which had pushed for larger transit investments, next Wednesday. It has also scheduled public workshops and hearings next month.

"It only makes sense to give citizens an opportunity to share not only their concerns but their suggestions for improving our transportation network at the beginning of the process," Ulman said.

The public comment period will be followed by four months during which the board will identify projects that could be funded with the added money. A second phase of public review will come early next year.

Ed Cohen, past president of the Transit Riders Action Council, said the money is not enough on its own to fund a large project such as a transit line. Transit advocates had asked the board to go further and to reallocate money from previously approved projects. But Cohen said the action was significant because it could foreshadow further changes the next time the long-term plan, which still allocates far more money to roads than transit, is redrafted.

"There's no question they listened to what the public said," Cohen said. "They said all of the $340 million, not three-quarters of it. That's a political statement."

The public comment period on transit projects to be funded begins Friday. Public workshops have been scheduled at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Aug. 12, and the full board will meet at 9 a.m. Aug. 26 to hear public comments. Another public workshop will be held at 1 p.m. that day. The sessions will be held at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council offices at 2700 Lighthouse Point East, in the 2700 block of Boston St. in Canton.

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