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Donald C. Fry: Will state make $900M disappear?

Sometime after Gov.-elect Larry Hogan’s inauguration on Jan. 21, both the new governor and transportation advocates for Baltimore’s Red Line, as well as for the Purple Line in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs, will face a moment of truth.

At issue is whether the governor will allow both projects to remain funded, as they are now, in the state’s six-year capital budget for transportation projects or whether he will opt to divert, defer or eliminate budgeted funding for the projects.

In Baltimore, transportation advocates, including the region’s government, private-sector and civic leaders as well as businesses throughout the city — all of whom recognize the Red Line’s potential transformative economic impact on the city and region — are vigorously urging Gov.-elect Hogan to embrace the project that is nearing the construction phase after more than 10 years of study, planning and preparation.

Both the Red Line and the Purple Line projects are on the verge of receiving $900 million each in federal funding grants. In order for Maryland to be formally awarded the federal funds, each project requires that the governor officially certify the state’s funding commitment in writing in a “full-funding agreement” sometime soon.

In the case of Baltimore, a decision against certifying state transportation funds currently budgeted for the Red Line or to defer or delay the project — a.k.a. hitting the “pause” button — would remove federal funding availability and, to put it mildly, be adverse to Baltimore’s imminent transit and economic development progress.

In the absence of a full-funding agreement from Maryland, the Federal Transit Administration will spend the $900 million currently queued up for the Red Line on other projects elsewhere in the country.

The bottom line? Losing federal funding would doom the Red Line, currently estimated to cost $2.9 billion, which includes the federal funds.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake put it bluntly. “We need to move forward with this project and do it this year. We do not have another option,” she told Greater Baltimore Committee board members last week. If we don’t, we will be leaving $900 million in federal funds on the table, waste $250 million in state money already invested and lose millions in private-sector funding, “all while abandoning the most effective path forward for growing a more connected, vibrant and livable community,” she said.

Meanwhile, a number of misconceptions about the Red Line continue to be perpetuated in print, talk radio and the blogosphere, to which I offer these observations:

First, the Red Line is not a “concept” at this point. It is well beyond the drawing-board stage where it can be substantively changed. It’s in the state’s transportation capital budget, and $900 million in federal funding is on the line. The issue before the governor is whether to keep it in the capital budget.

Also, the Red Line funding issue is not about closing the state’s operating budget deficit. The Red Line is not financed by operating funding. It’s funded by the Transportation Trust Fund, not the General Fund.

News reports continue to cite “mounting reservations” about the Red Line. While there are a handful of Red Line detractors who are adept at getting media attention, there are not “mounting reservations.” To the contrary, there is strong, widespread support for the Red Line.

Cost is always an issue with major transportation projects. But delay or implementation of various alternatives proposed by detractors would only increase construction costs, not reduce them, according to a Maryland Transit Administration study.

Few question the value to the Baltimore region of building an east-west light rail line that will transform our existing, fragmented, north-south rail transit into a comprehensive system and ultimately generate more than 145,000 jobs and an estimated $3.5 billion in economic impact.

“We stand at a crucial moment. There’s no time to put this project on ‘pause.’ There’s no time to second-guess our hard work and contemplate alternative alignments or transportation modes,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Regarding the effect of delay on the availability of the $900 million in federal funding, “it’s not like you let someone get in front of you at the cashier and you hold that second spot. No, you are all the way at the back of the queue,” she said. “We won’t see another project like this for many years to come. These funds can’t be used for any alternate project.”

As Gov.-elect Hogan weighs whether to embrace the Red Line and the Purple Line, those familiar with the federal funding process say warnings about the effect of delay or indecision on these projects are authentic.

This is not run-of-the-mill political or policy posturing that many in Annapolis are used to. In the case of the Red Line, this is reality with a potential genuine and debilitating economic consequence to Baltimore — a major economic driver in the state.

It’s a major fiscal investment, but opting for superior mobility and a strong economic catalyst seems far preferable than the consequences of delay.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His email address is