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Editorial: A reality check for rail funding

Maryland’s proposed Purple and Red light-rail lines have just taken significant steps toward reality with key federal approvals, but unfortunately, the lack of money to build both lines is equally real.

The recent green light from the Federal Transportation Administration means that the state can move from concepts to conducting environmental studies and nailing down cost estimates and construction timetables for the Purple Line.

Similarly the Red Line was granted an expedited federal review by the Obama administration on Monday that could shave up to two years off the project, moving up the expected completion to 2018.

While both steps are good news, they also bring Maryland’s elected officials one step closer to facing the painful fiscal reality that without a massive infusion of money, the state is not close to being able to pay its share — probably half — of the more than $4 billion cost of these two projects.

The 16-mile, $1.93 billion Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton is a critical element of the economic future of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which are key components of the Maryland economy.

Trains would run mostly along surface streets, their electric power coming from overhead wires. In addition to relieving traffic-clogged roads and stimulating transit-oriented development around its 21 stops, the Purple Line would provide vital suburban linkages for the Washington Metro, making it more of a true system.

The line would connect both branches of the Red Line at Bethesda and Silver Spring, the Green Line at College Park and the Orange Line at New Carrollton. It also would connect all three MARC commuter rail lines, Amtrak and local bus services.

Baltimore’s $2.2 billion Red Line is a vital link in the infrastructure the city needs to support growth and development and relieve traffic congestion. The 14.5-mile route will run from Woodlawn in Baltimore County to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center on the east side of the city.

Hard on the heels of the federal approvals, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation issued tentative recommendations this week for building up the state’s transportation revenues.

With a goal of increasing those revenues by $800 million a year, the commission urged a 15-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike as well as increases to vehicle registration fees, the titling tax on new and used cars, higher transit fares and a range of fee increases at the Motor Vehicle Administration.

The commission also wants governors of both political parties to stop raiding transportation funds to cover general operating expenses, an essential step no matter what else happens.

The commission will take a final vote on its recommendations on Oct. 25. If the governor and legislative leaders aren’t willing to support these recommendations, they need to come up with their own alternatives to accomplish the same goals.

Either way, it’s time to stop kicking the fiscal can down the road. We need action now.