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Red Line's environmental plan gains federal approval

The Federal Transit Administration has given its blessing to the environmental impact assessment for Baltimore's proposed Red Line, clearing the way for final design but adding new urgency to finding the means to pay for the $2.5 billion light rail project.

In a decision released Tuesday afternoon, the FTA said the Maryland Transit Administration had satisfied all environmental requirements laid out in the federal law.

"This is a milestone," said Henry Kay, the MTA's executive director for transit development and delivery. "We started using the term Red Line 10 years ago and we drew a line on a map and then spent our time perfecting it. But until you get this piece of paper, you're not there."

But opponents of the project say the federal review failed to ask the tough questions.

"No one has looked at this in the global sense and said, 'This is a lousy idea,'" said attorney Ben Rosenberg, who lives in Canton. "Half of the Baltimore Hispanic population that needs mass transit to get to work is bypassed by this. There's no meaningful response to the needs of the community. I'm utterly disappointed."

The 14.1-mile, east-west light rail line would connect the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Baltimore County to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center campus in Baltimore. The route includes a combination of surface, tunnel and above-ground tracks, 19 stations and three new park-and-ride lots at Security Square, Interstate 70 and Brewers Hill-Canton Crossing.

The project is expected to begin in 2015 and take six years.

The federal government will require Maryland to prove it can pay for about half the cost of the project and the similarly priced Purple Line in the Washington suburbs. Replenishing the state's nearly empty Transportation Trust Fund has become a source of friction that pits rural areas against urban neighborhoods and motorists against mass transit proponents.

On Monday, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Democratic leaders of the General Assembly proposed a bill that would increase the gas tax to help raise $3.4 billion over five years to support transportation projects.

"This is a make-or-break year. We need to lock down on the federal commitment by proving we can hold up our end," Kay said. "Without additional revenue, we aren't going to be able to do much more on the Red Line."

During the 45-day review period on the environmental impact statement that ended Jan. 28, state and federal officials received 243 written comments, all but 15 of them from individuals.

The bulk of the comments came from people who live in Canton, specifically along Boston Street. Residents expressed concern that the loss of parking and access, added traffic congestion and business and economic hardship makes the proposed light rail alignment a bad neighbor.

"Your plan divides the community that was the linchpin for this area without consideration of the investments made by many business owners and homeowners," said resident Michael Kirby.

Other residents questioned the validity of ridership estimates that say the Red Line would have more than 50,000 passengers daily by 2035.

Kay said he realizes that beyond the project's impact on the environment, there's the hardship of noise, vibration and inconvenience for people living and working along the construction corridor.

"During the construction phase, at least, we're going to be contributing to that," Kay said. "Those concerns are legitimate and there's no global solution that works. You have to work it out with each individual person, and those commitments will be upheld in the construction contract."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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