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For the Red Line, final price tag remains elusive

For the Red Line, final price tag remains elusive

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City and state officials praised the commitment of local funds to help pay for the proposed Red Line light rail, but lingering questions remain about the project’s final price tag and the amount local jurisdictions will have to pay.

Baltimore and Baltimore County both agreed on Tuesday to contribute $230 million and $50 million respectively to the project, after the total for the 14.1 mile line between Woodlawn and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center increased from $2.6 billion to $2.9 billion. The local jurisdictions are expected to cover 10 percent of the line’s cost.

“Obviously we can’t keep doing that. One of the advantages that we have now with respect to the Red Line is we have 65 percent of the engineering done. So we know what some of the problems have been and we’ve adjusted for those,” Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr. said. “We don’t anticipate that we’ll have as many surprises, or any surprises, moving to the final 100 percent of the engineering of the project.”

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake admitted that there is a chance for “cost creep” with the project, and that the price tag could be higher by the projected opening in 2022. But she argued that it’s important for the project to move forward at a steady pace to keep the cost down.

“There are very few projects of this scale that get cheaper as time goes on. But that’s why we have to continue to push forward,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Henry Kay, executive director for transit development and delivery at the Maryland Transit Administration, said the change in cost is primarily the result of problems found during the engineering process. Changes include lowering the walls surrounding underground stations where the water table is very high, and the discovery of cables underground that were used to support the basement of a building near South Calvert and East Lombard streets during construction and left underground when the project was complete.

Many of the recently discovered engineering challenges cited were for parts of the project related to tunneling under the city. Those increased expenses are driving the bottom line on the costs that Baltimore County is ultimately expected to pick up. The most recent changes have increased the county’s costs by $10 million since County Executive Kevin Kamenetz expressed concern over being required to contribute to the project.

“If it’s going up $10 million in basically a month, what does that mean for the future?” said Don Mohler, a Kamenetz spokesman. “That’s the kind of thing that concerns the county executive. It’s a concern for the taxpayers of Baltimore County and does raise concerns about the final price tag.”

Another funding challenge for the project is that it’s depending on $900 million from the federal government.

President Barack Obama has included $100 million in his proposed budget and a recommendation for a full funding grant agreement that would increase contributions from the Federal Transit Administration to $900 million.

But those funds are contingent on approval from Congress. Smith said this project was as likely as any mass transit project in other cities to receive federal money, but also acknowledged that Congress may not pass the budget.

“The Congress hasn’t turned us down. The Congress just hasn’t acted. Which is — they haven’t acted on anything,” Smith said.

The funding sources identified for the project still leave a large gap. A combination of federal, state and local contributions amounts to about $1.8 billion.

Smith said the remaining funds will be provided through private and public partnerships, similar to those under consideration to help pay for the proposed Purple Line light rail route connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, but he said it’s not known who those partnerships will be formed with.

Kay said the next big step in securing funding will be to put the project’s first contract out for bid. Once the state receives the bids officials will know if the project can come in near its expected cost. The first contract to go out will be for the downtown tunnel, which is expected to be the most expensive part of the project.

“The affordability of the project will turn on those bids,” Kay said.

The Daily Record reporter Bryan P. Sears contributed to this article. 

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