[Baltimore Sun] Maryland Gov. Wes Moore defends transportation budget cuts in speech, says trust from policymakers is ‘being tested’

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Democratic Gov. Wes Moore addressed controversial cuts to the state’s transportation budget Thursday, largely pointing to former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration rather than his own for the shortfall.

“Our predecessors turned away from making hard choices on what should and should not be prioritized as a state government,” Moore said as he addressed attendees of the Maryland Association of Counties winter conference Thursday. “So we say we’ll invest in everything — without the resources to do it, … without a plan of how to pay for it, and the budget gap is the result,” said Moore.

On Tuesday, the Maryland Department of Transportation announced a proposed reduction of $3.3 billion in transportation projects, which is poised to curb hundreds of millions of dollars worth of highway and road projects for the next six years and affect funding for the state’s public transit systems.

The governor, who is a month away from completing his first year in office, received a standing ovation from the audience.

But the room quickly grew silent as Moore began to address the recently revealed budget proposals.

Moore said during his speech Thursday that his administration is “still gathering a deeper understanding of where structural gaps exist.”

The Department of Transportation also proposed a slowdown for scheduled revenue increases for local government road projects. This rollback needs to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly, which convenes for the 2024 legislative session Jan. 10.

Certain projects that have already received grants or federal funds, including the Frederick Douglass Tunnel project set to replace a 4-mile section of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor under West Baltimore, will not be affected by the cuts. Baltimore’s long-anticipated Red Line east-west transit project can also move forward.

The budget cuts will likely dash Moore’s hopes to sever the rate of inflation from Maryland’s gas tax that he called for over the summer, which, in part, finances roadwork and infrastructure projects via the state’s transportation trust fund.

Pointing to his job experience in the private sector, Moore said the fund needs to be restructured.

“The transportation trust fund has become so outdated that fixing it requires a comprehensive look at how we fund transportation in the first place,” he said.

Anticipating financial shortcomings for state transportation projects, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2023 to form a commission to study and make recommendations for Maryland’s transportation trust fund. Final recommendations aren’t due until 2025. An initial report is due by the end of December.

A six-year forecast of transportation projects issued earlier this year estimated a $2.1 billion shortfall through the 2029 fiscal year. Revenue expectations, however, have continued to fall.

Moore has had to deliver bad budget news at both Maryland Association of Counties conferences he’s attended as governor.

During his speech at the summer conference, the governor announced to a room full of local officials that Maryland is headed for murky fiscal waters, and told them to prepare to be frugal with their asks in the state budget for fiscal year 2025.

Analysts at the Department of Legislative Services projected in June that Maryland could suffer a structural deficit of $418 million for fiscal year 2025 and a $1.8 billion deficit in fiscal year 2028.

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Moore also took the opportunity Thursday to bash the Hogan administration’s lack of investment in transportation infrastructure, pointing to Thursday’s announcement that Baltimore’s light rail services will be indefinitely suspended starting Friday. He called Hogan’s handling of transportation projects, like the light rail, “late, and over-budget and unfinished.”

“Papering over the problems — kicking the can down the road — simply asking people to pay more for things that they don’t feel are working — that’s not hard,” Moore said. “The hard thing is fixing a system that’s broken so that we can lead and not simply sustain.”

In an interview after the governor’s speech, Paul Wiedefeld, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, said that light rail services will be reinstated “when it’s safe.”

The governor acknowledged to the conference attendees that the trust he felt he gained from them “is being tested” because of Tuesday’s proposals.

“I do know that in this moment that … trust can be tested. I know because I’ve heard from, I think, each and every person in the room that on Tuesday … we released next year’s transportation budget. There’s a lot of ideas and a lot of thoughts, and that includes funding projects that will move Maryland forward,” Moore said. “But our ability to invest was constrained by one simple truth: Maryland is facing significant structural budget shortfalls.”

But Moore defended the proposed budget cuts, saying the choice his administration made “is the right one.”

“To understand the path forward we need to talk about how we got here; We need to talk about the challenges in our communities; And we need to talk about the discipline this moment demands,” the governor said. “And look: I don’t have all the answers right now. But I do know this: If we face our budget challenges together, we will emerge stronger — and we will prove to the people of Maryland that we can deliver.”

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