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City leaders seek path to reverse Hogan Red Line call

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore lawmakers and other city leaders vowed Monday to find a way to revive the $2.9 billion Red Line that has been flatly rejected by Gov. Larry Hogan.

After a closed-door meeting that included business representatives, city leaders said they would immediately seek a meeting with Hogan. Lawmakers also said they would call for a hearing at which they can quiz administration officials about why they scrapped what was considered the crown jewel in the city's plan for a better transit system.

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"The legislature has a role in this, and we need to figure out what that role is," said Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh, an architect of the Red Line plan who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

"We want to move toward a dialogue with the Hogan administration about transportation needs, transit needs for Baltimore," she said.

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But the Hogan administration signaled it's not backing down from canceling construction of the light rail line from Woodlawn to Bayview. That decision, announced last week, drew an outcry from city leaders and residents who have spent years planning the project and giving input at public meetings.

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the administration has no intention of reopening the debate over the Red Line — whether the light rail plan adopted by former Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration or alternatives discarded earlier in the planning process.

"The Red Line is not moving forward in today's concept or in previous concepts," she said.

In Maryland, under the state's strong-governor constitution, the General Assembly has limited options to get him to reconsider. While lawmakers can ask the Republican governor to restore the funds for the Red Line, they have no power to make him do so.

"They can't do a whole lot," said Warren Deschenaux, the legislature's chief policy analyst.

In announcing his Red Line decision, Hogan also proposed spending an additional $1.35 billion on highway projects. The state money Hogan does not spend on the Red Line would stay in the state's Transportation Trust Fund, and Hogan could use that on highways in future years.

Lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature could tie up those plans, but that would be a politically perilous course. Legislators from around the state would be holding up highway projects in their own backyards.

"That's not very constructive, and it creates a zero-sum situation," Deschenaux said. "I don't know what act of persuasion would undo what's been done."

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, chair of the city's Senate delegation, said city leaders want to meet in person with Hogan to make their case that Baltimore — recently torn by rioting in some of its poorest neighborhoods — needs the Red Line for its future economic vitality.

"This is like slapping a city at its most vulnerable time," she said.

Pugh, a Democrat, said the group did not discuss other potential transit options Monday. "We're not focused on alternatives," she said.

It's up to Hogan to outline any different course, she said, declining to predict the outcome of any talks with the governor. "I just know this is a discussion that needs to take place," she said.

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Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said Monday's meeting involved a "productive conversation" about different strategies for putting the Red Line back on track. But he declined to outline those strategies.

Libit said city leaders agreed "what a powerful tool the Red Line could be for Baltimore's future and that the Hogan administration chose to undermine that."

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said he didn't know whether a meeting with city leaders would take place.

"As Governor Hogan announced, the Red Line as currently designed will not be going forward — it was poorly designed and simply unaffordable with a price tag of at least $3 billion," Mayer said.

"While our office hasn't received the invitation in question, the governor also said last week that he is willing to work with anyone committed to the fair and honest development of alternatives. Grandstanding and media one-upmanship won't lead to better outcomes or solve any problems."

Hogan began chemotherapy treatments over the weekend at the University of Maryland Medical Center. He announced last week that he has been diagnosed with a "very advanced and very aggressive" cancer.

Through a process that lasted more than a dozen years and involved multiple public hearings, the Maryland Transit Administration considered various rail alternatives with different levels of tunneling. The agency also had considered dedicating bus lanes in basically the same east-west corridor — a proposal known as Bus Rapid Transit.

The MTA, with O'Malley's approval, settled on a light rail format with extensive tunneling — especially under downtown and historic nearby neighborhoods. They rejected less expensive alternatives that would have had trains or buses running on the surface through downtown, saying that would disrupt downtown traffic and make travel too slow to attract enough riders.

The O'Malley administration won U.S. approval for its Red Line plans, along with the tentative commitment of $900 million in federal aid.

Then Hogan asked his transportation secretary, Pete Rahn, to evaluate the Red Line project after taking office in January. Rahn concluded the $1 billion tunnel to be the "fatal flaw," making the entire project too expensive.

Henson, who said the state has already informed the Federal Transit Administration of its decision, stated that the Hogan administration plans to move forward with its search for solutions to Baltimore's transit woes. "I don't know what those would be," she said.

Among the transit problems Baltimore faces are downtown congestion that adds to commuting times and inadequate bus service.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, who served as former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's transportation secretary at a time when the Red Line was in its early planning phases, said some proponents may be having trouble grasping that the governor's decision is final.

"The people elected Governor Hogan, and he's vested with the power of making that decision," said Flanagan, a Howard County Republican.

Even if Hogan or a future governor were to try to build a revised form of the Red Line, he said, it would likely need to be vetted again through a lengthy public and federal review, which would push the opening of any new system into the 2030s.

"In the next 10-15 years, you are going to have a dramatic wave of technology in transportation," said Flanagan, a critic of O'Malley's choice of light rail. "We need to just try to think this through and not be wedded to technologies that are outdated and not cost-effective."

In seeking solutions, the Hogan administration would confront the same difficulties previous governors faced — the challenges of connecting to existing infrastructure and providing service that's convenient and fast enough that people would want to ride the new system.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said he was disappointed that Hogan did not outline alternatives in canceling the Red Line.

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"He has no systemic approach to the problems the region faces," Rosenberg said.

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