Donald Fry: For transit funding, a tougher fiscal environment

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By: Donald C. Fry 

As Baltimore’s planned light rail Red Line comes down the home stretch in the process of gaining final approval for approximately $1 billion in federal funding, it’s increasingly apparent to transportation advocates and elected leaders in the region that the process of funding major transportation projects isn’t what it used to be.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz recently expressed surprise that the Maryland Transit Administration has asked his county to contribute $50 million toward the $2.6 billion cost of building the 14.1-mile light rail Red Line from Woodlawn to Bayview.

Meanwhile, Baltimore City is working with state transit planners to comply with the MTA’s request that the city contribute $200 million to the project.

There was a time decades ago when local elected leaders could rely on federal funding for up to 80 percent of the cost of a major transit project like the Red Line, with the state kicking in the rest. But that was then, this is now.

In today’s era of tightening federal government funding for just about everything, the most state governments can expect in the way of federal funding is 50 percent – at best – of a project’s cost.

During the last 10-plus years since the Red Line planning process began, the federal government has made transit and highway funding a much more competitive process and has come to expect some local financial involvement.

At first projects that moved up on federal funding priority lists were those for which local governments voluntarily kicked in money or a state agreed to pick up a bigger share of project costs. Such projects moved ahead on federal lists faster than another state’s project with the traditional federal/state split.

Now the projects have become so expensive and the competition is so stiff that local governments are expected to demonstrate some financial skin in the game for a major project to be considered viable for federal funding.

Local governments are not accustomed to that. For years they never had to worry about funding for transportation projects and relied on just federal and state dollars. In a way, they still instinctively resist stepping up with tangible cash, preferring to contribute “in kind” contributions to projects in lieu of actual dollar outlays.

Nevertheless, it can be fairly argued that the local-funding amounts for the Red Line requested of Baltimore City and Baltimore County are eminently reasonable.

The benefits to Baltimore City are substantial and obvious, since the east-west Red Line will transform an existing fragmented north-south rail transit system into a genuinely integrated system that will greatly enhance mobility and serve as a catalyst for economic growth.

It will bring Baltimore into the company of such cities as Boston, Portland, and Seattle where transit provides efficient and convenient access to jobs, education and entertainment to thousands of residents through systems that use a combination of surface transit and tunneling.

The Red Line’s transformative improvement to mobility will also greatly benefit Baltimore County, where one third of its workforce commutes to jobs in Baltimore City, according to data compiled by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

It’s also worth noting that for more than two decades Baltimore County executives have demonstrated a strong commitment to the region, particularly supporting initiatives that strengthen the economic health of Baltimore City.  Such regional cooperation relates directly to the widely recognized reality that successful regions are characterized by healthy and viable core areas.  The short version of that reality is: as Baltimore City goes, so goes the region.

Baltimore County has in the past contributed to major projects in Baltimore City that benefit the region as well as the city.  For example, Baltimore County contributed $500,000 toward the cost to build the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center. The city contributed $6 million and the state and private sector contributed the rest of the project’s $63 million cost.

The numbers are larger for the Red Line project, but the local contribution concept is the same. Baltimore County is being asked to contribute less than 2 percent of the project costs, while the city is being asked to contribute almost 8 percent.

Meanwhile, the Red Line is currently poised at the top of the federal government’s transit funding list, with a final federal commitment set to be fully negotiated soon. So it’s imperative for state and local governments to resolve cost-sharing issues as soon as possible.

The current round of dickering over local cost-sharing for a transformational project like the Red Line further serves to illustrate the amazing challenges transportation advocates and governments will face in moving major projects forward in the future.

Let’s hope we learn from this project.

If we want to retain the mobility so necessary to a good economy and high quality of life, we’d better get used to emerging funding requirements and find ways to make critical infrastructure projects happen even in the face of fiscal challenges.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.


Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.


Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.


Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.


Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.