Transit advocates renew call for Red Line as part of statewide rail network

Advocates are asking Gov. Hogan to reconsider the Red Line and fund statewide transit upgrades.

Transit advocates sought to revive interest in the Baltimore Red Line light-rail project on Tuesday by recasting it as one link in a statewide rail network that would run from Delaware to Southern Maryland to West Virginia while connecting the Baltimore and Washington Metro systems.

The newly formed Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition called on Gov. Larry Hogan to redirect $8 billion proposed for a highway widening project on I-270 and the Washington Beltway to construct the Red and Purple lines, fund the planning and development of a $25 million Southern Maryland Light Rail line and increase the frequency of the MARC commuter trains.

Hogan has supported the Purple Line for the Washington Metro, but withdrew state funding for the Red Line to connect East and West Baltimore last year.

Ben Ross, who's chairing the new coalition, said its members had been working separately to promote local transit projects for years — but now want to work together on a statewide approach.

"We developed a plan," said Ross, the former president of the Action Committee for Transit in Montgomery County. For the same cost as a single highway project that's been proposed on I-270 and the D.C. Beltway, we could build a transit network all across Maryland from Elkton to Frederick, from Waldorf all the way to Towson."

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the governor "was elected to bring a balanced approach to transportation, which includes building roads, bridges, and mass transit. That is why the administration invested $2 billion in transportation projects across the state, while moving forward with a more affordable Purple Line, and supporting innovative public transit initiatives like the new BaltimoreLink bus system. As with any taxpayer-funded project, we must be sure that Marylander's hard-earned tax dollars are being spent in the most cost-effective and efficient ways possible."

The coalition is made up of the Action Committee for Transit, the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, the Prince George's Advocates for Community-based Transit and the Southern Maryland Alliance for Rapid Transit. Local politicians and a representative from Sen. Ben Cardin's office attended the group's news conference Tuesday morning outside Baltimore's Penn Station.

Ross said coalition members will attend Department of Transportation road shows to make their case directly to the public.

"Our basic strategy is to make the public understand what the possibilities are here," he said. "Over the next 10 to 20 years there will be several governors. I think it's more a matter of what the public wants than who is in office. Elected officials respond to the public."

Hogan, a Republican, pulled state funding for the $2.9 billion Red Line, the long-anticipated east-west rail line that was planned to run across Baltimore from Woodlawn to Bayview. He called it a "wasteful boondoggle."

At the same time, the governor gave conditional approval to a slimmed-down Purple Line project in the Washington suburbs that reduced much of the state's contribution, leaving Prince George's and Montgomery counties to pay more of the cost. The line would run from Bethesda through Silver Spring and College Park to New Carrollton.

The coalition asked the governor to resume work on the Red Line and reintroduce a decade-old MARC plan that would provide all-day, two-way service between Washington and Frederick and Camden Yards, and between Baltimore and points north such as Aberdeen, Elkton and Delaware.

Del. Brooke Lierman said better public transit has far-reaching effects, such as increasing employment opportunities that benefit the overall economy and removing congestion caused by single-occupant, commuter vehicles from Maryland's roads.

"Our state has very far to go in addressing the dire need for public transit options — light rail, bus, heavy rail, rapid but transit, bikes, water transit — and we must do so now," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Southern Prince George's County is "a traffic nightmare," county Councilman Mel Franklin said.

"We're not going to be able to build enough highways to keep up with the growing population," said Franklin, a Democrat. "We need transit in Southern Maryland. We need to connect Southern Maryland to our Baltimore region, and we need to connect all of our regional partners so we're thriving in terms of economic development."

State Sen. Jim Rosapepe, who represents parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, blamed traffic on I-95 for making him late to the news conference.

"If this program had been in effect, I wouldn't've been late," the Democrat said. "I would've been here. I could've walked from my house to the Purple Line station in College Park, taken the Purple Line to New Carrollton, gotten the MARC train and gotten off right here at Penn Station."

Rosapepe said his suburban constituents' biggest complaint is that they can't get to jobs.

"Sometimes, transit is postured as an urban-versus-suburban issue. Not true," he said. "The major beneficiaries of getting a 21st-century transit system in this state are going to be suburban working families."

An earlier version of this story misstated the status of an $8 billion proposal to widen Interstate 270 and the Washington Beltway.

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