Correction: Howard and Anne Arundel counties are set to lose 16 commuter bus routes under this proposal. One of those routes was counted twice in an earlier version of this article. The article has been updated.
Howard and Anne Arundel counties are set to lose 16 state commuter bus routes and some state funding for their own bus system, in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s proposed spending cuts announced in early December.
MDOT’s proposed fiscal 2025 budget has an 8% cut that eliminates the entire MTA commuter bus service and cuts funding to local transit services, among other service changes. Howard County would lose eight commuter bus routes that start or finish in the county, while Anne Arundel would lose eight. Most of the routes take workers to Washington or Baltimore in the mornings, with return trips in the afternoons and evenings. The 2025 fiscal year begins in July 2024.
Soon after the announcement, the MTA’s 30-year-old Light Rail system was shut down for maintenance to its electrical system.
For many commuters, that’s a double-whammy, as the Light Rail stations are “also important junctures for bus transfers,” said Sam Snead, director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Transportation.
State funding to local transit cut 40%
Snead maintained that the biggest impact on the community, however, is dropping the commuter bus lines, 16 of which serve The Business Monthly’s coverage area.
“The proposed budget would eliminate the capabilities of Anne Arundel County residents to commute to Washington, D.C. from the Truman Park & Ride, in Annapolis, and the Severna Park Park & Ride, for instance,” he said. “Eliminating these locations would have a detrimental effect from a transit service standpoint, because these are important transfer hubs.”
Howard County commuters would lose one-seat bus access to Washington from Ellicott City, The Mall at Columbia and the Broken Land Park and Ride, and to Baltimore from the Snowden River Park and Ride.
Anne Arundel County also markets its various transportation initiatives around those hubs for van pool programs, which link riders to the buses. It also “recently added scooter share and bike racks to those locations,” said Snead.
There is “also an equity piece here,” he said, “because every county’s locally operated transit system has also been cut 40%” due to those 8% budget cuts.
However, some county’s budgets have been reduced much more than others. “Anne Arundel will see a reduction of more than $57,000 and Howard would see a reduction of more than $50,000,” said Snead, though pointing out that Montgomery will lose more than $17 million and Prince George’s stands to lose more than $4 million.
That’s because Anne Arundel and Howard “have self-funded much of our operations,” said Snead, while the other two Corridor counties “had higher state and federal subsidies. In our case, we were going to get a sizable increase this year, but now we won’t know what we’ll receive until February 2024.”
He went on to stress the more widespread effects of the cuts. For instance, through local transit, Maryland provides the Statewide Specialized Transportation Assistance Program, which offers a subsidy for citizens with disabilities age 55 and older, “so it’s basically a taxi service” via the American Disabilities Act for citizens “who live off the beaten paths,” Snead said.
What’s more, “It’s helped us more effectively schedule our basic service,” he said, “but the MTA cuts will affect our ability to do so. Now, we’ll now have to ask the county for more funds. We’re early in the process, but we can’t guarantee that we can make that money up in our operating budgets.”
30 years old
What will “most likely happen,” said Snead, “is that our local contribution to Howard will most likely increase to keep the operation of Route 502, which is our inter-county line with Howard and the city of Laurel.”
He also noted that State Highway User Funds were also reduced, “which means there could also be a delay in capital projects for Anne Arundel, since we will not be able to fill the gaps locally for every project.
While many commuters may have to make new plans due to the cuts, the reduction of a transportation budget hardly unheard of.
“It looks like the cuts are coming to the bus routes that are not performing overly well,” said Gina Stewart, executive director of the BWI Business Partnership. “While no one likes to see cuts, that’s not unusual for a bus service and the MTA always examines its offerings for profitability.
“That’s a constant, because they direct resources toward better-performing routes,” said Stewart, though adding, “A few enhancement projects that were in the works, like transit shelters, metro cellular and bus lanes will also be affected” and that the cuts are not to projects that are already in the works.
As for that double-whammy, she said local bus ridership was also affected by the suspension of Light Rail service due to the need to renovate electrical conduits along the track.
“We saw a decrease in ridership for our County Connector shuttle service the first day the Light Rail was shut down,” which was Friday, Dec. 8, said Stewart, who pointed out that “half of our bus ridership” emanates from the BWI Business District Light Rail station.
“It’s just a tough time due to the age of the 30-year-old system, so MDOT needs as much money as it can garner to make repairs,” she said. “The state of good repair budgets will also impact the Red Line if they’re not restored, but for now the funding is still in place to keep the planning moving forward.”
With Session 2024 looming, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said he’s “been talking” to Gov. Wes Moore and Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller regarding the challenges with transportation systems, the fiscal realities and the best way to address them.
MDOT “needs to take a thoughtful approach,” said Ball, who said that the “8% cuts across the board could be a little more nuanced” when addressing Maryland’s transportation needs.
“Generally, we need to look at how to address challenges in a more sustainable way,” he said. “With our Regional Transportation Agency, we will continue to work with our neighboring jurisdictions to balance what we can, whether that’s getting more autonomy from the legislation or reallocating our own resources.”
While stressing that the process with Moore, the General Assembly, etc., is ongoing, “I’m looking for more discussion, too,” said Ball. “I’m very hopeful that we can work on something together during the session.”
RTA and MTA representatives did not respond to requests for interviews for this article.