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C. Fraser Smith: Better Red than dead project

Critics say the Red Line will break Baltimore’s bank: The strapped city can’t come up with its $200 million share. Also, critics say, the current plan misses the most transportation-needy riders. And, of course, it will be messy and disruptive.

Proponents call the Red Line a lifeline. They say we have to have it if the city and the region are to prosper. And, they add, it’s a perfect fit for the new Baltimore: older and younger — and car-less — residents of the downtown, waterside neighborhood.

So, who wins? Proponents, I think.

The planning and revising and rerouting train has left the station. We have to be on that train. We can take the federal money — or muddy the water sufficiently to lose it. It’s a done deal — unless local confusion undoes it.

The stakes are high.

Without a transportation system with the Red Line as centerpiece, Baltimore’s surprisingly strong resurgence could stall. Not something to gamble with, says M.J. “Jay” Brodie, former president of the Baltimore Development Corp. And, he says, there’s a lot to love in the current package.

Here’s what you might think of as Brodie’s Red Line primer:

– We get a state-of-the-art, 14-mile-long light rail line. A $7 million public art program comes along with it.

– There will be 19 stations, with economic development opportunities at each, including Security Square Mall, Uplands, West Baltimore transit-oriented development, Biopark, Inner Harbor, Harbor Point, Canton Crossing, Bayview.

– The cost: $2.6 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars. The cost has gone up from $1.6 billion in 2007 via inflation and several upgrades.

– As of Jan. 14 this year, the financial plan: $900 million, federal; $1.2 billion, state of Maryland; $200 million, Baltimore; $50 million, Baltimore County; $250 million, public-private partnership.

– Projected ridership: 2035, 54,000 per day. (Today, Metro has 48,000, light rail 28,000.)

– End-to-end travel time, 45 minutes.

And here’s the big picture:

– A fast, reliable train will transform transit travel from one side of the region to the other. Will connect directly to MARC, Metro and light rail, creating the system that the Baltimore region has lacked. Will serve as a “trunk” around which bus and trolley routes can be organized.

– Many new jobs during construction and around stations after completion.

– Antidote to car-choked East Side neighborhoods of Fells Point and Canton, where road capacity is limited and parking is expensive.

– Support for city effort to attract D.C. homebuyers.

– Tunnel avoids another Howard Street-like congestion in which light rail has to slow and stop on the way to Camden Yards and the Ravens stadium. Also, many adjacent streets are not wide enough to accommodate surface rail.

– Keeps Baltimore in line with competitor cities: Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Denver and San Diego, all of which have developed extensive light rail systems.

Brodie has a point of view, of course, but it’s a view born of long experience and concern for the future. His pragmatic view of the need to move now:

The feds could elect to let a fractious Baltimore stew in its juices. Many, if not most of the federal approvals are in hand. All good, Brodie says, but they mean nothing “until we have the check in hand.”

Brodie wonders, as do many other Red Line proponents, why Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is not a more out-front supporter.

Her style does not include beating drums and getting in the faces of bureaucrats. And, given the line’s passionate opponents, she may wish to avoid constant reminders of her pro-Red Line stance. Understandable, politically. Or maybe she would rather not have to explain where the city’s share of the money will come from.

But could she have more to lose politically if her tepid support causes the feds to bail out? She doesn’t want to be the mayor who let the future slip away.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.