ANNAPOLIS — A delegation for business people and elected officials made their way to the state capital Tuesday to make their case that Metro, the region’s struggling mass transit system, needs a reliable supply of state dollars.
On Tuesday, the Maryland House of Delegates Appropriations Committee held a public hearing for a bill that would give the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority $125 million in dedicated funding. WMATA has requested this type of funding for some time from the three jurisdictions of D.C., Maryland and Virginia, as it is one of the few mass transit systems in America without a source of dedicated funding or a consistent permanent supply of public money.
Council member Roger Berliner (D-1), who served on the Council of Governments, a regional body of elected officials from D.C., Maryland and Virginia that work on regional issues, said no issue has united people more than the need for a dedicated funding source for Metro.
“I’ve had the privilege of serving on the board of the Council of Governments for many years and last year as chair,” Berliner said. “In all of those years, no issue has united our entire region, Republicans and Democrats, urban and suburban, more than the need to finally provide dedicated funding for Metro.”
The bill would take an annual $125 million from the state’s transportation trust fund, requiring the government to set the money aside in the budget every year for Metro. Similar bills are being debated in Virginia and D.C., who have all had legislators promise to push for dedicated funding with Maryland. However, the Maryland bill is contingent on similar funding from D.C. and Virginia, meaning that even if it passes, it would require the D.C. and Virginia legislatures to promise to kick in similar levels of funding for Maryland’s bill to take effect.
Montgomery County’s Del. Mark Korman (D-16) and Brian Feldman (D-15) are the lead sponsors of the bill in the House of Delegates and the State Senate respectively, which also has the bipartisan backing from Gov. Larry Hogan.
“I just want to add that more than dollars are needed for Metro,” Korman said. “Reforms are needed, in the short term and in the long term, and also continuous oversight by us because Metro for years unfortunately has not lived up to its promise and that’s how we ended up in the state we’re in.”
For years officials from Metro have called on a dedicated funding source from the three jurisdictions. In 2016, the problem became more apparent after Metro shutdown its entire system revealing a laundry list of safety issues and years-neglected maintenance. WMATA representatives have long blamed the lack of a dedicated funding as reason for the lack of maintenance, as waiting for the governments of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to appropriate funds for maintenance each year prevents system planners from designing capital projects for safety and maintenance because they never know how much funding the system will receive.
Del. Jefferson Ghrist (R-36) was among the few members of the committee to openly express some skepticism about the bill, and suggested that his Eastern Shore constituents were more deserving of a disbursement from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund – which is funded by a sales tax on cars sold within the state’s borders, a gas tax and motor vehicle registration fees and is used to pay for a variety of transportation projects across Maryland – because they pay more into it than Montgomery County residents. The same money would be better spent on needed road repairs in his district, Ghrist said, rather than on the Metro system.
“It’s just the folks I represent, they pay a lot in titling taxes they, you know, they travel much more probably than your consistency does so they pay much more, a lot more dollars into the Transportation Trust Fund per capita than your folks probably do,” Ghrist said. “And I can tell you that our roads are eroding, both our state roads and our local roads – especially our local roads, I just want to make sure that money is available for our local jurisdictions.”
Representatives from the Montgomery County and Bethesda chambers of commerce testified at the public hearing on behalf of businesses. Jennifer Russel, vice president of economic development and government affairs for the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce said not supporting the bill for dedicated funding could send potentially a wrong signal to Amazon, who placed Montgomery County on its list of 20 jurisdictions to put its new headquarters.
“For you to not even consider not providing the funds for the system sends the wrong message to Amazon and to any other business that is considering Maryland as its new home,” Russel said.