Lawmakers Continue Debate Over Transit Spending

By Ilana Kowarski,

The debate over transportation funding in the Maryland General Assembly moved to the Senate Budget Committee Tuesday, with some senators arguing for more transit spending and others claiming that the state devotes too many resources to its transit system already.

For the second time in five days, the Maryland transportation secretary was confronted with tough questions from lawmakers, who asked him why drivers should pay for the cost of running the transit system.

The proposed fiscal 2014 transportation budget was harshly criticized at the House Appropriations Committee Friday.

So Darrell Mobley, acting secretary of transportation, was prepared for hostile questions at Tuesday’s hearing on the MDOT budget, and he began his presentation with an admonition to senators, telling them to ignore the hype regarding supposed inequities in transportation spending.

Mobley defended his department’s budget, saying that its provisions for additional transit spending were justified by the fact that the department had historically spent more on roads than the transit system. Until 2001, the transportation department spent more on highways than on any other sector of the transportation system, and in some years since, the department has spent millions more on roads than on transit, he said.

Empty buses, under-used routes

But his arguments did not sway many of the senators on the Budget and Taxation Committee, including Howard County Democrat James Robey, who informed the secretary that he believed a significant amount of transit funds were being wasted on buses and subways that the public rarely used.

“I see many, many transit vehicles going around with no riders,” Robey said.

Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick, urged the secretary to cut under-used bus routes in order to conserve transportation department funds. He said that the department could no longer rely on highway tolls, gas taxes, and other revenues collected from drivers, since the fees were already high enough to dissuade people from getting gas in-state.

“You can’t keep going back to the same well,” Brinkley said. “It’s tapped out.”

Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, agreed and argued that transit riders should be contributing more towards the cost of maintaining subways and bus routes. He advocated an increase in fares, noting that the transportation department was legally obligated to retrieve 35% of transit costs from passengers but had failed to meet that state mandate five years in a row.

Transportation department administrators said that they were attempting to meet the mandate by cutting costs rather than raising fares during a time of economic hardship.

MDOT official calls ‘farebox recovery’ unacceptable

Lief Dormsjo, acting deputy secretary, said that the mandate was unreasonable and argued that the farebox recovery rate should be lowered, since fare increases would place a financial burden on struggling poor families, particularly in Baltimore City.

Colburn was unmoved by this argument, and he said that the department must abide by its state mandate. “I don’t get the sense that you are even trying,” he said.

David Fleming, the transportation department’s chief financial officer, assured senators that his agency took the mandate seriously, and he said that their lack of success in cost recovery was not evidence of a lack of effort.

Sen. James “Ed” DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, said that he shared the department’s concern for the welfare of low-income transit riders but that he was still troubled by their inability to meet the state mandate.

“I know it’s a tough issue,” DeGrange said, “but we do need to bump up those rates.”

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