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O'Malley, Erhlich, The Red Line and something called "Heavy Rail"

Current Light Rail travelling from BWI to Penn Station
Current Light Rail travelling from BWI to Penn Station
Maryland Transit Administration

The title of this article could stir a lot of emotion. There could be feelings of political partisanship coupled with strong perspectives pertaining to community growth and stability. However, this community and its local and state government need to get past the “touchy-feely” and go about making practical and rational fiscal and infrastructure decisions.

The Baltimore Sun reported last month that at a recent round table in Montgomery County, 2010 gubernatorial candidate and former governor Bob Ehrlich stated he would most likely scrap both plans for the 2 new proposed Light Rail lines in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. and right here in Baltimore. Ehrlich went on to say that he would support a Bus Rapid Transit proposal (designated bus only lanes on busy transit routes) or doing nothing at all. For about a month you have been hearing the cries ring out about the former governor pandering to rural areas of Maryland who are vehemently against paying for this endeavor. And you know what, it probably is a political ploy to rally his base – but that’s another article. What we should be considering in our community is the practicality of this Red Line venture and the feasibility of alternatives.

To make this informed decision, all facts must be presented and any background information must be put into a proper perspective. First of all, let us look at funding. It is true that the state has applied for federal funds to offset cost. The Red Line project is expected to cost $1.8 billion (with a “b”) and federal funds would cover 50% of this outlay. This means that the state, just for the Baltimore part of their Light Rail project, needs to find $900 million dollars - which according to the State Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee - is money that Maryland does not have. The Committee, when they signed off on Governor O’Malley’s budget in March, inquired as to what revenue producing legislation the governor had in mind to produce these funds. There has not been any transparency as to possible legislation to generate the capital needed.

Secondly, let’s look at alternatives. A comparison is needed between the Red Line Light Rail against the Red Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposals. This will be entertaining drama on the campaign trail as the election draws near. If you do a little research on-line, you’ll see that the Light Rail may initially be about $600 million more expensive initially, however over time it will be a lot cheaper in maintenance cost. Plus, we do not like taking buses. If we did, we would be using our current system a lot more. This is not about taking leisure trolley rides to the harbor. For mass transit to work and be profitable, you need commuters going from home to work every day. For commuters to trust mass transit, it needs to be faster and more convenient than getting into their cars and listening to their favorite morning shows on the radio.

Are there any other ideas? Over the last few months there has been a ground swell movement for the proposal to use “heavy rail” as a means to expand the transit system. “Heavy Rail” is the mode used in subway systems. Proponents believe that we can incrementally increase subway lines and connect them with current MARC train lines throughout the city. The best presentation of this system that I have found is by Gerald Neilly at The argument is that it would be less expensive to build off what we have and give our current system connectivity rather than build an entirely new system with no connectivity to our current mass transit. This is how most other subway systems expand. We would expand only when we have the funds to do so. Also, the aforementioned Budget and Taxation Committee asked the Maryland Transit Administration to look at “heavy rail” alignments due to new Federal Transit Administration guidelines from the Obama Administration. The MTA feels that federal funding is not there for “heavy rail” expansion.

A word to the wise: if we build it, they may not come. There are a great deal of empty houses in Florida and Nevada that were built just because there was a flawed relationship assumed between available real-estate and expected real estate investment. I can think of 900 million reasons for complete due diligence. Many citizens have commented that more dialogue will just result in stagnation and futility – strike while the iron is hot. However, we can go downtown and see the results of 2 mass transit failures that poorly predicted ridership, business development and foresight. If I were you, I would follow carefully how the election, legislation and the project unfold. No matter what the outcomes, you will be affected.

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  • Marty Taylor 5 years ago

    This may be the best article written about the Red Line in the time I have been involved with the project. Thanks for presenting all sides without a political agenda or the MTA's drive to build any transit project it can get, no matter how bad.

    Gerry’s heavy rail plan as well as others designed by TRAC focus on using existing infrastructure and on connectivity, building logically on our current system. This makes more sense than spending >$600 million to tear up downtown and dig a new tunnel parallel to one we already have. Why does the red line do this? Seems it’s what happens when you draw some development-based dots on a map and shoehorn a connection.

    The MTA refuses to consider these plans. Why? The "sunk cost" fallacy - we've already spent this much making a light rail plan, we MUST press forward. This is wrong. It seems the Red Line is no longer about transit, only about money and jobs. Who will get out of their car to commute on a system slower than busses downtown?

  • Pamela Bond 5 years ago

    Baltimore is way behind other east coast cities on the subject of mass transportation. Someone should say something about the decrease in east coast Amtrak Service.

  • simplyscott 5 years ago

    If the current systems don't work, why are trying to build more? Let's get what's there working, make it as smart as it can be, then move on. How's the free circular going? I'd like to know. I have yet to ride it, but the buses are pretty.

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