Despite a state transportation trust fund that is currently stretched thin, Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson late last week was upbeat on prospects that the 2024 session of the state’s General Assembly would provide additional aid to help head off possibly sharp cuts in services by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).
Declaring that “the WMATA system is an essential infrastructure priority for the state of Maryland,” particularly from the standpoint of economic development, Ferguson said, “We have to find a way to make sure it is not just functional, but is operating at its best capacity.” He later vowed: “We will find a way to fix it. It’s too important for us not to.”
Ferguson’s comments came during an interview prior to speaking to the Democratic Club of Leisure World in Silver Spring late last Thursday. Heading off sharp cuts to Metro transit service, particularly on Metrorail, is expected to be a key focus during the 2024 session of the Maryland General Assembly for Montgomery County’s 35-member delegation—which will hold an online pre-session discussion Monday evening on the county’s legislative priorities in Annapolis.
While federal aid to Metro during the pandemic headed off sharp cuts in service, WMATA officials have warned that these relief funds will be exhausted by the middle of 2024 – leading to a $750 million operating deficit that could grow to $1.2 billion by the end of this decade.
In recent months, officials of the agency have publicly raised the specter of a 40% cut in Metro’s workforce, with cuts in service by as much as two-thirds—leading to 20-to-30-minute waits for Metrorail passengers—if additional help is not forthcoming from regional governments. WMATA did not respond to a request for comment from MoCo360 on the latest status of its budget and service projections.
While acknowledging that the funding issues confronting Metro are “not a one-time problem,” Ferguson suggested the funding crunch would ease as the impact of the pandemic recedes.
“I believe this is a pretty unique time,” he said, noting that the Metro operating deficit has been aggravated “because the farebox recovery is so low” as many in the regional workforce performed their jobs remotely rather than traveling to offices. “That’s going to change over time…People have come back to work [in offices],” Ferguson said. “So, this is not a permanent problem.”
Though officials have applied pressure on federal workers to return to the office, Ferguson’s prediction is rosier than commercial real estate forecasts have indicated.
He did say that additional aid from Maryland for Metro would “absolutely” need to be tied to agreement by other stakeholders in the multi-jurisdiction transit agency—Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the federal government—to provide increased funding to deal with the operating deficit.
“It has to be done together. There’s got to be a commitment from each,” Ferguson said, while expressing optimism that such an agreement would be worked out with the other jurisdictions. “This is one of those where we always find a way,” he said. “I feel confident that we will.”
Pending any such increases, Maryland currently provides nearly $820 million annually in aid to Metro, according to current budget documents. Approximately $467 million of this is in the form of operating subsidies, while an additional $350 million is directed to meeting the agency’s capital infrastructure needs, part of the latter coming from annual dedicated capital funding on which Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia reached accord in 2018.
Politically, increased operating assistance for Metro in 2024—an issue of surpassing importance to both Montgomery County and neighboring Prince George’s County—may end up linked to projects in the Baltimore area, to gain the support of legislators in that region. Gov. Wes Moore (D) recently revived plans for the Red Line in Baltimore, a light rail project this his predecessor, Republican Larry Hogan, jettisoned in 2015.
Ferguson, who grew up in Rockville but has represented a legislative district in Baltimore city since 2010, acknowledged that funding for WMATA and the Red Line are “probably related.”
“The timing is very different—the WMATA issue is much more known and urgent right now. The Red Line still has a ways to go before there are clear costs associated [with it],” he said during the interview. But he added: “I would say that, to the degree that they both put pressure on the transportation trust fund, that any solution is going to have to deal with the challenges of funding both of them. To that degree, there is an aligned interest between the two regions to figure something out.”
Ferguson later expanded on the financial pressures facing Maryland’s transportation trust fund—which state officials have said is oversubscribed by $2 billion in terms of $21.2 billion in pending projects—as he addressed the Democratic Club of Leisure World.
“The challenge we have in Maryland is the transportation trust fund is not just stretched; it’s at its brink,” Ferguson warned.
“We have the undergirding of a great [transportation] system” he said, citing projects from a new American Legion Bridge to the Red Line as well as a proposed light rail line for southern Maryland. “But is all funded through the same pot…We have to have a very real conversation about what it looks like moving forward, so we are able to continue to invest in the right ways for all of our different modes of transportation.”
The state’s Transportation Revenues and Infrastructure Needs (TRAIN) Commission, whose creation was spearheaded by Ferguson last year, is working on a series of recommendations to shore up the transportation trust fund. Ferguson indicated that legislative consideration of such recommendations—including a possible new tax on electric vehicles and hybrids—is likely to take place a year from now, during the 2025 session of the General Assembly.
At present, nearly a quarter of the revenues available to the transportation trust fund are derived from the gasoline tax – but that percentage is declining at an accelerating rate, as motor vehicles become increasingly fuel efficient and there are more electric and hybrid vehicles on the road, Ferguson noted
“In making sure we’re dealing with climate change, the increase in electric vehicles is absolutely where we need to go,” Ferguson told the group. “The challenge is that 23 percent of the revenues we rely on for the transportation trust fund come from the gas tax. If you have an electric vehicle, you still use the same roads and the same bridges—you just don’t pay the user fees through the gas tax that maintains the system.”
Montgomery County, along with neighboring Howard County, lead the states in registered electric and hybrid vehicles, with just over 2% of the vehicles in the two jurisdictions falling into those categories, according to Maryland Department of Transportation statistics.
“I suspect the [Department of Transportation] wants to move ahead with a new fee on electric vehicles,” Ferguson said in his interview with MoCo360, while cautioning: “I think we have to be really mindful that, if we are going to have to look at new revenues, we have to first make sure we prioritize the system—and we know where the money would go, and that there’s a clear itemization of where the department would be moving us for the next five to 10 years.
“I don’t know that we’ve hit that place quite yet.”