Lawmakers continue debate over transit spending

February 06, 2013 at 10:00 pm

By Ilana Kowarski
Ilana@MarylandReporter.com

Mass Transit Administration light rail line.

Mass Transit Administration light rail line.

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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  • squidvicious

    The “increased fare” strategy seems much like Baltimore’s “raise taxes” plan. The claim is nobody rides transit, so the solution is to increase fares…??? And they say they want to run government like a business. Imagine K-Mart (a struggling retailer) deciding that they’re losing customers and therefore revenues are down. So to get revenues back to where they need to be, they raise prices — because that’s how you reward loyal customers… gauge them. Thus, they alienate their remaining customer base and [to their great surprise] they lose more customers. I thought businesses usually want to encourage more people to buy their stuff. So too wouldn’t it make sense for transit operators to encourage more people to ride???

    • abby_adams

      Maybe you are unfamiliar with the history behind mass transit in MD. Before 1970, there were several PRIVATE bus companies that operated in & around the Balto Metro area. When those companies could no longer continue to keep fares low & pay the bills, the state created the MTA subidized by allocating a portion of gas taxes to the program. Since the very beginning of the MTA it has never charged riders the true cost of the system. Even the Metro doesn’t collect 100% of the real costs for providing the service. What’s wrong with charging riders more since many, especially commuters working for many fed & state agencies already receive a subsidy for using mass transit? Subsidies are also available for students & others on mass transit. The average MD driver is already subsidizing mass transit, fed, state & local highways, in addition for being responsible for buying the vehicle, maintenance, insurance & fuel costs to operated said vehicle. Demanding more $$ in gas taxes only removes more $$ from a shrinking pile of disposible income available to the average MD family.

    • DrDave8563

      If a business is losing customers and losing money on a store, and they can’t reduce costs enough to operate above margin, they close the store. That might be the best thing to do here.

  • eddiemac

    Sen. Brinkley needs to do a fact check on gas taxes. Maryland’s gas tax is one-half cent higher than Delaware and 3.7 cents higher than VA. It is the same as DC and significantly lower than PA (that alleged low tax haven for Marylanders) and WVA. Given the relatively few crossings from Maryland into VA, I can’t see that many people crossing over into that state to get gas (unless their Governor eliminates the gas tax and replaces it with an increase in the sales tax, which he has suggested). I am not advocating higher gas taxes, BUT our gas tax is tied for 29th nationally, so our gas tax is not to high at current levels.

  • abby_adams

    The state seems to view private vehicle ownership as a cash cow ripe for the picking. Sales taxes are collected when the vehicle is purchased. Transfer & licensing fees are also collected along with 2 year registration & tag renewals. Tolls have doubled & we’re still paying gas tax with every gallon we purchase. Yet we’re told it is not enough. The state always wants more. More money for roads, bridges, mass transit subsidies, contruction money for two additional mass transit lines that will also required more $$ to subsidize ridership for those living in certain areas of the state while penalizing others who happen to live in the burbs. Anyone who live near one of our lower gas tax border states might be tempted to slip over to fill-er-up & maybe spend a few extra bucks shopping there instead of here. Haven’t these brain dead state people got it yet? After 24 revenue increases (a fee is a tax if it comes out of my pocket) during the O’Malley years, we’re tapped out. Fed up with an ever expanding state budget with no relief for “We the Taxpayers”.