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Red Line plods along, to mixed reviews

ANNAPOLIS — Potential road, highway, bridge and mass transit projects will soon receive a badly needed infusion of money now that the General Assembly has agreed to increase gas taxes and transit fares to augment the balance of the Transportation Trust Fund.

Baltimore lawmakers teamed with other elected officials in traffic-choked Central Maryland in support of a multimillion-dollar transportation revenue package. But among the city’s elected officials, there remains plenty of lingering doubt that Baltimore’s mass transit prize, the east-west Red Line, is the right project to improve commuting in the state’s largest city.

Privately, some experts say the $2.5 billion light rail project could wind up a “white elephant,” with ridership numbers that pale in comparison to the proposed Purple Line connecting Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, which is competing with the Red Line and other mass transit projects for limited federal dollars.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, said about a dozen total projects across the country were competing for money from the Federal Transit Administration, which is expected to decide by 2015 whether to pay for about half of the Red Line. If all goes to plan, the line would be running by 2021, putting Red Line’s timetable slightly ahead of Purple Line’s.

That could put the Purple Line’s federal funding in jeopardy, some say, as federal dollars for transportation projects are scarce. Cardin said he expects the Red Line to receive federal funding, despite concerns about ridership.

“You look at the standards, and it’s marginal,” Cardin said in a recent interview. “We think it qualifies, but it’s not as strong as we’d like to see it. … It just comes in under the wire, but that’s fine. There’s different needs for every transit system, and different ways you can do the projections.”

The Red Line — a decade-old plan — would be a 14.1-mile rapid transit route connecting Woodlawn in Baltimore County with the Johns Hopkins Bayview medical campus in East Baltimore. Commuters would make the trip in 44 minutes, making 19 stops along the way. The line would provide new access to job centers such as Hopkins, the Social Security Administration and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The Maryland Transit Administration expects that more than 50,000 people will ride the Red Line every day by 2035.

“An East-West system that connects to Metro Subway, Light Rail and MARC Train would be a major step forward for public transportation in the region,” Terry Owens, a MTA spokesman, wrote in an email.

Members of the business community — led by the Greater Baltimore Committee and Maryland Chamber of Commerce — have advocated for new mass transit because they expect it to decrease congestion on Maryland’s roads, create both temporary and permanent jobs and spur other development. City officials announced Thursday that an operations center for the Red Line in West Baltimore would account for 300 jobs alone.

Despite some doubts about the plan, many Baltimore lawmakers are desperate to improve a poor mass transit system.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee, said she supports the Red Line plan, even though “it could still be tweaked to be better.”

“In every major, growing, thriving city in the country, they have a transportation network,” McIntosh said in a recent interview. “Baltimore city really doesn’t have that. … We need to have a network that is affordable and gets people to work.”

Some residents, however, are not yet convinced the Red Line plan is the correct start to building that transportation network. There has been plenty of community opposition to the light rail plan, on both the city’s East and West Sides.

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Democrat who chairs Baltimore delegation in the House, said it was unfortunate that the planned path for the light rail line would divide neighborhoods.

“I think it’s got its problems,” Anderson said. The planned track would run straight down Edmondson Avenue on the city’s West Side, separating the historic Edmondson Village community that is part of Anderson’s district.

He also noted that the Red Line would create a number of traffic problems in Canton, a popular neighborhood in Southeast Baltimore, where organized opposition has been persistent and vocal. Many homes in the area have had signs in their windows for years protesting the Red Line, part of which would run down the middle of Boston Street, the main thoroughfare along Southeast Baltimore’s waterfront. Construction would force a temporary rerouting of traffic, either through the heart of the neighborhood or along a yet-to-be-built temporary roadway along the water.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Canton, said new money for mass transit was “absolutely critical” to the city’s growth. But the Red Line would not be enough to correct Baltimore’s transit problems, Ferguson said.

“There are some issues with the alignment … but Red Line, as the foundation, is necessary,” Ferguson said. “Additional modes are necessary. The Red Line itself doesn’t quite get us to a comprehensive transportation network. … Done piecemeal, it becomes a marginal project.”

Ferguson said bus rapid transit or street car systems need to be part of a larger Baltimore transportation plan. Those components of a potential network would not be as expensive to build as additional light rail lines, but the question would again turn to how to pay for such projects.

Despite expectations that gas prices will increase by up to 20 cents a gallon over the next five years due to new taxes contained in House Bill 1515 — Gov. Martin O’Malley’s transportation funding plan that was passed by the Senate on Friday — the state’s half of construction money for mass transit has not been secured.

HB 1515 is expected to raise more than $600 million a year for the Transportation Trust Fund, expanding the Maryland Department of Transportation’s bond capacity to more than $800 million once fully implemented in mid-2017. But that only covers engineering and land acquisition for mass transit projects; extra money would be needed to pay for construction of the Red Line and Purple Line. The Corridor Cities Transitway, a less-expensive bus rapid transit line in Montgomery County, is also in the mix.

The legislation, which now goes to O’Malley for his signature, calls for a study of regional transit authorities. Those authorities would need to raise more than $1 billion for the Red Line and more than $1 billion for the Purple Line — perhaps by increasing property taxes — to pay for the state’s portion of construction costs. Absent that money, the federal government won’t offer up any cash.

Even if the money is raised, few appear convinced Red Line is the best way to begin build out of a comprehensive city transit system.

“There needs to be a system in the Baltimore metropolitan area,” said Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell, chairwoman of the city’s Senate delegation. “I think we just have to make it the best way.”