Revised Red Line plan scraps single track in favor of double

The Maryland Transit Administration has revised its proposal for the east-west Red Line, scrapping a plan to use a single track in a tunnel under Cooks Lane in West Baltimore and replacing it with a more costly double-track option.

According to the MTA, new ridership estimates have come in higher, allowing it to propose a somewhat more expensive transit line including some of the features that had been trimmed to keep it within the federal government's cost-benefit formula.

The most significant of the cuts made last year was to reduce the Cooks Lane tunnel near the western end of the proposed light rail project from two tracks to one. That second track, which will add $67 million to the project's cost estimate, will now be restored to the MTA's final application for federal funding.

Critics of the proposed Red Line plan had seized on the now-abandoned single-tracking plan to label the Cooks Lane tunnel as an argument against the project, calling that 1-mile section a potential "death trap" in which two trains could collide head-on.

The restoration of double-tracking is unlikely to mollify critics whose principal objection is the decision to run the light rail line on surface streets through Canton and a stretch of Edmondson Avenue. Nor is it likely to appease advocates of a full-fledged subway system.

But Edward Cohen, past president of the Transit Riders Action Council, conceded that the double-tracking addresses the biggest single safety concern.

"It would be an inadequate system and it would still be a dangerous system. It just wouldn't be a catastrophically dangerous system," he said.

Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning, said the agency never agreed with the critics' contention that single-tracking through the tunnel would be unsafe. But the MTA conceded that the pared-down plan could have presented operational problems.

"Having the two tracks would increase the reliability, and it also would be more cost-effective," Kay said. He added that restoring the second track to the tunnel also responds to concerns raised by community members.

The proposed 14-mile, $1.5 billion Red Line would run from Woodlawn to Bayview on a route that would take it through West Baltimore, the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Canton.

The Cooks Lane double-tracking is the largest single item among $121 million in improvements that could be made to the state's Red Line proposal under the revised ridership estimates. Kay said others include an improved signaling system and an increase in the fleet of railcars from 34 to 38.

According to Kay, the new ridership estimate forecasts 60,000 Red Line riders per day in 2030, compared with 54,000 in the preliminary application sent to the Federal Transit Administration last year. He said the new estimates were based on Baltimore Metropolitan Council figures showing increased population and economic activity along the Red Line corridor.

Kay said the revised ridership figures have been reviewed and accepted by the federal agency. He said the MTA will submit its final application by midsummer and expects a decision on whether it can proceed to the next step by late summer.

If the federal government approves the application, the state would then have to figure out how to raise its expected 50 percent share of the total cost.

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