Red Line: No Plan B

Memo to Hogan: Making the buses run on time is your job, not a substitute for the Red Line.

The upshot of the meeting Gov. Larry Hogan's transportation secretary called with Baltimore area officials Monday to discuss alternatives to the Red Line is that there is no real alternative to the Red Line. The best Pete Rahn was willing or able to offer is an effort to make the buses run on time, which we would have thought was simply his job, not a substitute for the biggest advance in Baltimore's transit system in three decades.

The scope of what Baltimore lost in Governor Hogan's decision to kill the project was underscored by a bit of news Sen. Barbara Mikulski brought to the meeting in the form of a letter from U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx explaining that the $100 million she had taken some pains to secure in this year's federal budget for Red Line engineering and environmental assessment cannot be shifted to another project in Maryland and, unless Mr. Hogan changes his mind and soon, it will go to some other project in some other state.

Mr. Foxx noted that he had not gotten official word of the cancellation from Governor Hogan and thus could hold the funds for a short time in case he changes his mind. Mr. Rahn said the administration would be correcting that oversight shortly, so a total of $900 million in the advanced stages of federal approval will evaporate, and hundreds of millions more in local commitments from Baltimore city and county are now off the table as well. It would take another decade at least to regain the lost momentum.

Mr. Hogan's announcement that he would cancel the Red Line came shortly after April's riots, and it delivered what Don Fry, the CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a major booster of the project, refers to as a "body blow" to the region. The point of Monday's meeting seemed to be to snuff out any ashes of hope that might remain.

Hogan administration officials have piqued the interest of transit policy wonks by hinting that they're interested in bus rapid transit, which can be a good alternative to rail when done properly. But doing it properly involves carving out dedicated travel lanes, building permanent structures at stops, providing frequent service and giving the buses priority at traffic lights. That is to say, it involves basically the same thing as a light rail system, minus the rails. It was already considered as an alternative to the Red Line but rejected as having many of the same complications — there are, for example, no spare lanes to dedicate to either a bus or a rail line in the most congested areas the route was designed to serve — without providing the same payoff.

And in any case, it's clear that what the administration is interested in is not really bus rapid transit but in making the existing buses run a bit faster and more reliably, and to connect them better with the employment centers of today and not those of a downtown-centric past. That's wonderful. We're glad to hear it, and so is anybody who's stood at a stop wondering if the bus was ever going to come, or who transferred three times to get to a job. Better real-time smart phone bus tracking would be great, and so would more stringent performance measures. But participants in the meeting said the plans remain vague and there was no commitment to add lines or dedicate new funding to the system at all.

And ultimately, the Red Line proposal emerged from more than a dozen alternatives because the corridor it would connect is so congested that speeding up travel is impossible with the existing infrastructure. A better bus system wouldn't integrate Baltimore's existing rail lines. It wouldn't provide dozens of opportunities for transit-oriented development in the city's prosperous and challenged neighborhoods alike, nor would it connect workers to the major employment centers in western Baltimore County or bring them to the doorstep of the new opportunities coming in Sparrows Point.

Though Mr. Rahn called the meeting to discuss alternatives to the Red Line, it is now quite clear that the Hogan administration has no interest in anything of the sort. There are no pieces to pick up, there is no Plan B. Any Baltimore leaders who want to keep pushing for a transformational transit project after watching Mr. Hogan summarily rip up more than a decade of work are going to have to do it on their own.

Mr. Hogan bristles at the accusation that he's waging war on Baltimore, and we suppose he's got a point in objecting in this case. Canceling the Red Line was a blow to the entire region, and it comes at the worst possible time.

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