Red Line to receive faster federal review

Baltimore's proposed Red Line was among 14 infrastructure projects the federal government selected Monday for expedited permitting and environmental review, a move that could reduce the time it takes to build the east-west light rail line by up to two years.

The announcement was the latest indication that the $2.2 billion rail project — which would run from Woodlawn to Bayview — has become a priority for the Obama administration as it looks for ways to spur job creation through construction. The rail project received federal approval in June to move beyond the conceptual stage and into specific planning.

Henry Kay, deputy administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration, said the designation was "excellent news" but said it was no guarantee that a project previously projected for a 2020 opening would be completed in 2018.

"It could potentially speed it up as much as two years, but everything would have to work perfectly," he said.

Kay said the decision could help the MTA speed its dealing with federal environmental agencies that would have to issue permits for various aspects of the project – including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Kay said the move also could help hasten dealings with the Social Security Administration and General Services Administration on issues related to the transit line.

The MTA has had a good working relationship with federal agencies, Kay said. But he said the administration's designation can help because "time isn't always everyone's priority."

The Red Line is now in the preliminary engineering phase, making it one of a relatively few U.S. transit projects to have advanced that far in the federal review process. Last week, the Federal Transit Administration gave the green light to another Maryland light rail project — the $1.9 billion Purple Line in suburban Washington — to also advance to that step.

Both projects have strong support from political leaders in their local jurisdictions but face opposition in certain neighborhoods, such as Canton and Edmondson Village in the case of the Red Line.

If the either project receives final federal approval, it would open the door for Maryland to receive 50 percent U.S. financing for construction. The state would have to come up with matching funds.

The White House selected the Red Line for faster review along with 13 other projects nationwide, including the refurbishment of the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, the construction of a mixed-use housing and retail development in Washington D.C., and the building of a massive water supply project in New Mexico.

The announcement follows a memorandum President Barack Obama signed in August directing federal agencies to expedite environmental reviews and permit decisions for projects that would create a significant number of jobs.

Plans call for the Red Line's tracks to run in one long tunnel under downtown and Fells Point and in one shorter tunnel under Cooks Lane in West Baltimore. The rest of the route would run above ground, including on Boston Street and Edmondson Avenue.

Advocates say the project is needed to relieve traffic congestion and to provide an alternative way for workers to reach some of the city's major employment centers, including the Inner Harbor, Harbor East, the University of Maryland professional schools and the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

The Red Line is not the first Maryland transportation project to be selected for expedited federal review. During the George W. Bush administration, the federal government streamlined the review process for the Intercounty Connector highway project at the request of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The first phase of that toll road opened this year.

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