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MTA provides some Red Line answers

Last week I wrote that opponents of the proposed Red Line had raised some pertinent questions that deserved answers from the Maryland Transit Administration.

One had to do with revised ridership projections in the plan Gov. Martin O'Malley chose for the so-called "locally preferred alternative," which came in about 28 percent higher than in the draft environmental impact statement. That revision helped bring the project within federal cost-effectiiveness guideline so that it could qualify for 50 percent U.S. funding. Red Line foes have implied that the magnitude of the change suggests the MTA had been cooking the books to get that result.

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The other has to do with the decision to go with a single track in the one mile of light rail tunnel to be built under Cooks Lane. Opponents raiised the spectre of a catastrophic head-on, high-speed crash in the tunnel.

I put both questions to Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrattor for planning, during an interview last week.

On the revised numbers, Kay said the environmental statement relied on 1996 data because those were the most recent available at the time. He said the final plan relied on data from a 2007 on-board ridership survey.

Among the changes found in the newer survey, Kay said, were a siignificant increase in the number of people living in downtown Baltimore and a greater concentration of households without autos than was reflected in the older data. Both findings increased the number of potential riders, he said. Kay further noted that the Baltimore Metropolitan Council has, since 1996, revised its forecast of population and households in the region.

Kay said the MTA has been checking its methodology with the Federal Transit Administration continuously through the process and is confident it will stand up to the agency's scrutiny.

"It would be very foolish of us to publish numbers and recommend a locally preferred alternative we've not (had) vetted by the agency that will actually provide funding," Kay said.

On the single-tracking, Kay agreed it is not the ideal configuration for the Cooks Lane corridor. But he insisted that single-tracking a portion near one end of the line can be done safely and without serious delays.

Kay said trains can share a single rack as long as there is in place a well-desgned signaling system. He noted that the current  Central Light Rail system include a singe-tracked segment near the north end of the line that has never has a head-on collision.

The MTA officials said any such system would include multiple levels of safeguards, including protocols for human operators  and an electronic "trip stop" system.

Kay said it is by no means sure that the Red Line would eventually operate with a single-track tunnel, He said that if ridership numbers or funding levels increase, such a move might not be necessary.

I asked Kay aboout some of the MTA's previous statements about single-tracking when it came under pressure from some Montgomery County Council members to consider that option along three  miles of the Purple Line in order to save more trees from being cut down.

The MTA wrote:

To some, this is evidence proving that the MTA is saying one thing in suburban Washington and another in Baltimore. But Kay said the circumstances  are not  comparable.

"What's different is the setting," he said.

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Kay said the segment the where  the Council members were interested in preserving trees was 3 miles and included a station. That, he said, would have created more operational difficulties than the 1-mile stretch under Cooks Lane, which would not include a station. What Kay did not say, but I will, is that there's a big difference between accepting single-tracking to accommodate a few trees and doing the same thing to make a project viable.

It should be noted that the reasons the MTA cited for opposing single-tracking on the Purple Line did not include safety. So no inconsistency exists on the most important issue raised by the single-track plan.  I don't see a smoking gun here.

I don't expect these answers to change minds on either side of the Red Line issue, but I thought they belonged on the record.

It seems to me there's not much point stressing over the ridership estimate. Those numbers will soon be in the hands of the FTA, and  they will either pass muster ot they won't.

The single-track issue is more serious. The burden is on the MTA to show it can design a signaling system that can defeat Murphy's Law: the proposition that anything that can go wrong will. And it will have to make its case in a way that  legislators and other lay persons can understand.

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