Starving Md. transit
Our view: Whether in Baltimore or the D.C. suburbs, malnourished public transportation needs all the help it can get
Cutting off funds to public transit doesn’t get you better public transit. One need only look at the example set by New Jersey Transit where, as The New York Times recently detailed, the state subsidy for the commuter railroad fell by 90 percent under Gov. Chris Christie. That meant, among other things, neglected upkeep and no money to pay for needed safety upgrades. Theresult? Adeadly train crash at the Hobokenterminal on Sept. 29 that might have been prevented had officials not deliberately delayed the installation of Positive Train Control.
The lesson should not be lost on Maryland commuters, particularly in the Washington suburbs where neglect of a 40-year-old subway system once regarded as the state of the art has been just as horrific. A deadly fire, dangerous conditions, track defects, derailments and shutdowns have forced temporary closings of all or portions of the system to make emergency repairs. Customers have abandoned the Washington Metro in droves as a result.
That’s whyGov. Larry Hogan’s call last weekfor the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to get its house in order before Maryland can consider spending more tax dollars on Metro is problematic at best. He’s right that WMATAleadership has been wanting, but he’s wrong to think that supporting Metro now amounts to throwing “good money after bad.” Under WMATA General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, a former chief of the Maryland Transit Administration and Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Metro is finally confronting its maintenance problems head-on, so the timing seems peculiar.
What does denying WMATA adequate funding (the system faces a $275 million shortfall next year) actually accomplish? It means trimming back services and raising fares, a good way to ensure that riders who abandoned Metro in recent years will stay away. That doesn’t produce greater efficiency, it only compounds the problem by enforcing a death spiral of reduced service and customer dissatisfaction, forcing more cuts and fare increases in the future. And it means those riders are likely headed to the roads, where congestion will worsen for all commuters.
This is a serious matter, and we appreciate the frustration felt by elected leaders, including Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who said he similarly wants to see improvements first before sending WMATAmoremoney. But does that reflect a “tough love” attitude toward Metro or simply a desire to avoid the political heat that comes from spending money on a subway system that has failed so miserably? If neglect is the central problem, further neglect is hardly going to make things better.
We pose the question because under Governor Hogan, Maryland seems to be on a path toward minimizing its commitments to public transit whenever possible. His decision to cut Baltimore’s Red Line, a potentially transformative economic The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority faces a projected $275 million budget shortfall next year. development boost for the city, without providing an adequate alternative beyond rejiggering bus routes is the most obvious example. But he’s been stingy elsewhere, too: withdrawing $78 million in financial support for Montgomery County’s Corridor Cities Transitway, effectively canceling the16-mile bus rapid transit project in the traffic-clogged I-270 corridor, as well as last year’s decision to reduce state funding for the Purple Line Bethesda-toNew Carrollton light rail project.
That’s quite a contrast to the governor’s affection for highway construction, given how he’s accelerated rural and exurban paving projects across the state and reduced tolls. Such pro-road policies are destined to have the effect, whether intended or not, of clogging Maryland’s roads. “If you build it, they will come,” is more than a movie catch-phrase, it’s the proven result of widening highways that encourage sprawl and inevitably lengthen commutes. No wonder a group of transit advocates last week unveiled a new statewide coalition to push for projects like an expanded MARC system and the Red Line’s revival — it’s clear the state needs to unite against a common threat.
Certainly, Maryland needs to find a better way to finance its transit systems. Aregional sales tax is certainly onepossibility, but it can’t be created merely to enable Mr. Hogan to divert more of the existing revenue streams within the Transportation Trust Fund (including the gas tax) toward road construction. Given Maryland’s continuing air pollution problems, the threat posed by climate change and its traffic woes (the D.C. area ranks second only to Los Angeles for worst congestion), it would be foolish to raid public transit in order to spend substantially more money on the most polluting and wasteful, least energy efficient and most dangerous way to transport people to jobs — alone in their automobiles.