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C. Fraser Smith: If Hogan hesitates, Red Line could be lost

Psst, Mr. Gov.-elect Hogan.

Here’s a daring way to follow through on your promise to promote job growth.

Go ahead with the Red Line.

I’m not kidding. I know it’s really expensive and you’ll be dealing with a billion-dollar deficit in the current and following year budgets.

And I know that’s not all. Maryland’s share of Red Line expenses is about a billion. So keeping the Red Line alive will be a feat if you can pull it off.

You should try, though.

For the Baltimore region, this project is not just a rail line. It’s a life line. Needy but growing, the city — the region — needs help to achieve sustainability. If there’s a stronger economy and growing tax base, the state can avoid periodic rescue missions.

And there are the demands of change. Many new residents are the so-called millennials and empty nesters. They’re car phobic, many of them. Not to speak of car-less workers who need reliable transportation to Bayview Hospital or Social Security.

And here’s the bigger, economic development picture.

A fast, reliable Red Line will transform transit travel from one side of the region to the other. It will connect directly to existing MARC, Metro and light rail service, creating the system that the Baltimore region has lacked. It will become a “trunk” around which bus and trolley routes can be organized.

Without a transportation system — with the Red Line as centerpiece — Baltimore’s surprisingly strong resurgence could stall. Not something to gamble with, suggests M.J. “Jay” Brodie, former president of the Baltimore Development Corp.

Here’s his 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: Security Square Mall, Uplands, West Baltimore’s transit-oriented development, the Inner Harbor, Harbor Point, Canton Crossing and Bayview.

– The current cost estimate is $2.9 billion. That number has nearly doubled from $1.6 billion in 2007 via inflation and several system upgrades.

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

– Many jobs during construction and permanent ones around stations after completion.

– The Red Line could keep Baltimore competitive with other cities in the race for new corporate citizens. Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Denver and San Diego all have developed extensive light rail systems.

I know you’ve said not now, maybe later. But will there be a “later”? Lot of money to leave on the table if later never comes.

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.”

Relative to some Republican governors-elect, you were almost progressive on the stump. (Our secret.) You knew the campaign was — had to be — about jobs and the economy. You won.

So where do you go from here? Well, you could start cutting without too much regard for the impact on schools and other elements of the budget that people care deeply about.

And you could decide to postpone the Red Line, defensible decision.

But the cost of delay might be devastating. Instead of a city with its hat constantly in hand, the Red Line might put the city on the road to sustainability.

You got a lot of votes in Baltimore this year — many more than Republicans usually get. Worth thinking about.

But really it’s about the whole state.

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.