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The Red Line numbers don't add up [Commentary]

In a recent letter to Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Smith, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz correctly stated that "… there was always a clear understanding that [the Red Line] would be a state and federally funded transportation project with no expectation of a local contribution." That was not only true, but it was one of the big selling points the MTA used to convince local public officials and others to support the Red Line plan.

But as the projected cost of the Red Line has ballooned from the Maryland Transit Administration's 2008 estimate of $1.63 billion to the current estimate of more than $2.67 billion, the project no longer appears to be affordable without hundreds of millions of dollars from Baltimore City. The financial impact on Baltimore City taxpayers is potentially enormous unless state and local public officials demand that the Red Line planners hit the "pause button" and produce a transit plan for Baltimore that is less costly, and, unlike the 14-mile all-or-nothing Red Line plan, can be built in separate phases.

Consider the following: More than one-half of the estimated cost of the current Red Line plan is for building a downtown tunnel that parallels the existing downtown Metro tunnel along much of its route. The only connection between the two tunnels and their separate transit systems is a two block long pedestrian walkway 70 feet underground between Lombard and Baltimore Streets. Elimination of the unnecessary and exorbitantly expensive downtown tunnel from the Red Line and extending the existing Metro from the Johns Hopkins medical campus to Bayview would save enough money to eliminate the need for any local contribution to the Red Line from Baltimore City and Baltimore County. It would also enable the Red Line and the Metro systems to connect at a true transit hub at Lexington Market. The cost savings would also allow a station to be built at the University of Maryland Baltimore campus, which is missing from the current Red Line Plan and pave the way for exciting and much-needed development opportunities along the west side "Highway to Nowhere" (a stretch of would-be interstate highway parallel to U.S. 40 built in the 1970s) and the west side MARC station. These are just a few of the possibilities that would dramatically improve mass transit in the Baltimore region if the current Red Line plan is modified.

But what happens if the Red Line planners continue on their present course and insist on pushing the current Red Line plan ? Let's go back to the numbers. In December 2012, the MTA announced that $900 million was the maximum amount of federal funding available for the Red Line. While Gov. Martin O'Malley's recent gas tax increase likely saved the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund from insolvency, according to the General Assembly budget analysts, the maximum amount of state funds that could be dedicated to the Red Line is $1.2 billion. Even at the existing estimated cost of the Red Line of $2.67 billion (which the MTA acknowledges does not include the costs associated with moving the planned Harbor East station to Fleet and Exeter Streets and realigning the tunnel west of Little Italy to accommodate the change in station location), the shortfall between the estimated cost of the Red Line and available federal and state funds is almost $600 million. And as MTA executive Henry Kay recently acknowledged, once construction of the tunnel starts, "you never know what you're going to find." The one certainty is that the estimated cost will go up. Mr. Kamenetz's offer to provide $26.5 million in "in-kind" contributions from Baltimore County such as rights of way and minor road realignments amounts to less than 5 percent of the current shortfall.

So where is the rest of the "local contribution" to the cost of the Red Line to come from? Mr. Kay has made no secret that the MTA expects much of the shortfall to come from Baltimore City. But the city can't afford to pay for all of the services its citizens currently require, much less assume the additional financial burden of the Red Line. What this means is that the Red Line as currently planned simply cannot be built. There are affordable alternatives that will vastly improve transit in the Baltimore region. The choice is clear. Now is the time for the MTA to go back to the drawing board and design a transit plan that works and one we can afford.

Benjamin Rosenberg is a member of The Right Rail Coalition (www.rightrailcoalition.org) His email is BRosenberg@rosenbergmartin.com.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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