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Cummings joins transit advocates in urging continued support for Red Line

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings joined transit advocates on Wednesday night in calling for continued support for the planned Red Line light rail project in Baltimore — and for more Baltimoreans who support the project to make their voices heard.

"If we want the better future that the Red Line will bring, we have to act," Cummings said. "If we fail to act, I firmly believe that the stars will not align again."

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The standing-room-only forum, organized by the citizen advocacy group Red Line Now, was held as transit advocates brace for the Jan. 21 inauguration of Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, who has expressed skepticism over the state's ability to pay for the Red Line and the separate Purple Line light rail project connecting Washington suburbs in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The Red Line would connect Woodlawn, to the west of the city, with East Baltimore, traveling above ground through parts of the county and city and below ground through downtown and parts of Southeast Baltimore.

The project is estimated to cost nearly $3 billion, to be paid for through a mix of local, state, federal and private-industry investment in what could be one of Maryland's largest public-private partnerships to date. A similar funding structure is in the works for the $2.4 billion Purple Line.

Advocates at the forum included residents who live along the proposed Red Line route, bicycling advocates and transit officials, including current project leaders at the Maryland Transit Administration.

Many at the meeting pointed to the shared financial commitments already in place — including $900 million in federal funding — as a key strength of the project and a huge potential loss if the plans are changed in any significant way now.

Still, they acknowledged that the Red Line's fate lies in Hogan's hands.

"He's in control," said Henry Kay, the MTA's executive director for transit development and delivery. "What he decides to do, we will do."

Hogan has said the state needs to invest more in its highway system, but he has provided few transportation policy details. His office has said he does not plan to share new policy decisions until he takes office.

Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who sits on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said he has "no reason" to believe Hogan will cut the project, but added that residents who support it should be doing everything in their power to make that support known to Hogan and other elected officials.

"As a matter of fact, you don't have the right to remain silent," he said, calling the project a gift to Baltimore that will shape "the destiny of generations."

Local officials, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, have told Hogan that the transit line is a top priority for Baltimore and have asked him to keep it in the state's budget.

The state's Board of Public Works approved budget cuts and other measures Wednesday proposed by outgoing Gov. Martin O'Malley to eliminate this year's budget shortfall, but Hogan will still need to deal with a projected $750 million shortfall in next year's budget.

A recently passed "lockbox" law, however, would require a declared fiscal emergency and legislative approval to close that gap through the use of any transportation savings realized from scuttling the Red and Purple lines. Those savings would instead likely go to highway or other transportation projects.

Cummings and others at the forum said Baltimore and the state have come too far to see the Red Line slip away now.

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"We're on the one-foot line," Cummings said. "We can't fumble the ball now."

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