Amid the chaos of a pandemic, as well as the lingering shock waves from the recent anti-Democratic riots by Trump followers in Washington D.C., the Maryland General Assembly’s annual legislative session opened today in Annapolis.
The most important environmental bills being debated in Maryland this year focus on two aspects of the most weighty issue facing our planet: Climate change, and mass transportation as a key strategy for reducing greenhouse gas pollution.
A bill called the “Climate Change Solutions Now Act” would require the state to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by about half within 10 years and have net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.
The legislation, backed by a coalition of 73 environmental and community groups across the state, would also require the planting of five million trees – many in urban neighborhoods – and the electrification of the state vehicle fleet, among other steps.
The lead sponsors of the bill, Democratic Senator Paul Pinsky, Chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and state Del. Dana Stein, Vice Chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, spoke during an online press conference yesterday.
“Once again, this past year, we witnessed raging fires in California,” said Pinsky. “We also saw flooding along the Gulf Coast, and torrential rains and major storm events throughout the nation and world. I think we all realize that the crisis, in terms of climate, is not abating, at all.”
In the U.S., the sector of the economy that contributes the largest share of greenhouse gases – about 28 percent, in total -- is transportation.
Mass transit has long been recognized as an important strategy for reducing carbon dioxide pollution from cars and trucks. But the COVID pandemic is crippling mass transportation agencies across the U.S.
Kevin Quinn is Administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA).
“The biggest impact we’ve seen is a pretty dramatic reduction in ridership,” Quinn said. “Overall, as an agency, we are about 59 percent down (in terms of ridership since March). But that differs, based on the mode you are talking about. So our local bus service has decreased about 50 percent, but that’s quite honestly not as dramatic as we’ve seen elsewhere in the country. We also have our MARC trains and our commuter buses. Those are down about 90 percent.”
The result has been a drop in revenues from fares of about $7 million a month to MTA – plus more lost money from a decline in gas tax collections. All this forced the transit administration to cut MARC train and commuter bus service by about half in late September.
To help solve chronic mass transit funding and maintenance shortfalls that date back even before the pandemic, state Delegate Brooke Lierman and State Senator Corey McCray, both Democrats of Baltimore, are co-sponsoring a bill. It would force the state to keep mass transit capital spending, for fixing and replacing buses and trains, at a level high enough to maintain a safe fleet. That would mean continuing at an annual cost of almost $500 million a year -- rather than slashing this funding by half as the Hogan Administration has planned between 2021 and 2026.
Here’s Delegate Brooke Lierman: “We have buses that simply break down…we have light rail cars that have also become obsolete. Our subway tracks in 2018 became so dangerous that they had to shut down subways service for six weeks in Baltimore to fix it.”
Lierman and her co-sponsor hope that the infusion of funds will help get mass transit back on track in Maryland. This, over the long run, will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector – and combat climate change.
However, a bigger question remains. Will the pandemic forever change the way people work and commute? This might alter the whole idea of mass transportation, and force it to evolve in ways that are not year clear.
.............................. The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at email@example.com