Most people do not know that the city of Baltimore has a subway system. But Baltimore’s subway has been making headlines due to its need for emergency repairs. While Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has funded the repairs, the state should not be wasting taxpayer dollars fixing a broken subway system. Rather, Maryland should have used this money to create more beneficial transportation infrastructure, such as better bus systems or new roads.
Unfortunately, Maryland is now in a tricky situation with few great options to fix the mess. Other states should learn from Maryland’s mistakes to avoid similar problems in the future.
On February 11 the Maryland Transportation Administration (MTA) declared that the Baltimore Metro SubwayLink would be closed for a month to complete necessary repairs. The single-line Metro, which runs 15.5 miles with 14 stops between Owings Mills and John Hopkins Hospital, has been in disrepair for likely over a year. Although maintenance was supposed to occur this summer, after a safety check in February it was found that the repairs could no longer wait. Instead, emergency renovations started immediately with less than 24 hours’ notice for commuters. Repairs are set to finish on March 11.
Some segments of the heavy-rail system may have needed replacing as early as November 2016. The Federal Transit Administration requires that rails’ gauge face angles be less than 26 degrees, but all the rail lines on Baltimore’s Metro SubwayLink exceeded 26 degrees, because the trains had worn down the rails substantially. Additionally, the safety review indicated that 17 of the Metro’s 19 tracks were unsafe for any train movement, leading to stopping the entire line until the repairs are made.
Even without necessary repairs, the Metro SubwayLink is an expensive endeavor. The entire MTA system only has a farebox recovery ratio of 28 percent, 7 percent below its goal. This means that the system is only recovering 28 percent of its operating costs through its revenue collection. Even fare increases have been unsuccessful in boosting revenues. Additionally, MTA representatives have been quoted requesting more funding for the entire system in order to operate effectively.
The Metro SubwayLink in Baltimore is also underutilized. Established in 1983, the line serves approximately 40,000 riders per day. Moreover, ridership has declined since 2012. In 2016, ridership decreased by 12 percent from the previous year. Ridership is down approximately 28 percent since the first quarter of fiscal year 2013 to the first quarter of fiscal year 2018.
Governor Hogan says the state is just now catching up on repairs needed from the 30-plus years of operation. He blames the emergency repairs on decades of neglect, but in his 3 years in office he too has neglected these repairs. Governor Hogan has allocated $3.5 billion to transportation infrastructure for the city of Baltimore, some of which will be allotted to fix the broken Metro.
Rather than allow the train line to continue to operate on unsafe tracks, Governor Hogan should have ordered a feasibility report to determine whether the state should have replaced or shifted the funding from the metro to other transit option.
While the renovations are occurring, Governor Hogan has set aside $2.2 million for a free coach bus service to run the route of the Metro as an express bus service. However, the temporary service has been poorly communicated to commuters and has been delayed. Many commuters have complained of being extremely late to work, and students have had their commutes to school doubled.
By allowing the repairs on the Baltimore Metro SubwayLink line, Governor Hogan and his administration are implicitly agreeing to continue to fund the expensive and underutilized Metro line. By doing so, Maryland will continue to waste more money on an unnecessary transportation line where it could have allocated that money to bettering the bus systems to cover the area from the lost Metro line or improving roads for commuters.
The Baltimore Metro SubwayLink situation illustrates how governments continue to fund infrastructure because it has existed for so long. Rather than follow this mentality, local, state, and federal governments should analyze the data, look to the future, and allow underutilized and expensive transportation infrastructure to be a sunk cost of the past.
Maryland has funded its Baltimore Metro system when it could be spending money on its bus system, which accounts for 2/3 of all commuters in the Baltimore area. Other states should learn from Maryland’s struggles and stop costly and underutilized operations before they squander more taxpayer dollars.
Emily Top is a research associate at Economics21.
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