Light rail lawsuit in Baltimore County seeks $10 million


TC A Baltimore County lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing next week, could cost the state Department of Transportation $10 million -- two-thirds of the county's share of construction costs for the Baltimore region's light rail transit line, now being built.

The suit, filed last fall in county Circuit Court by the Northern Light Rail Community Coalition, alleges that a bond referendum on the ballot last November seeking approval for $80 million in public works projects was too vaguely worded for voters to understand that some of the money would be used for light rail.

"That's unfair. That doesn't comport with anyone's notion of an informed citizenry and an informed vote," said Henry R. Abrams, an officer with the coalition. The group includes residents of the Ruxton, Riderwood and Lutherville communities, where the line is being built. Some of the residents of those areas have fought the project on several fronts for years.

The referendum included $10 million for light rail -- part of the $15 million the county pledged to the $446 million project. Most of the 27.5-mile line, designed to link Glen Burnie and Hunt Valley with downtown Baltimore, is scheduled to open next year.

The referendum, which passed by a vote of 79,442 to 52,926, asked voters to authorize the county "to borrow $80,210,000 for public work purposes, for the class of projects which includes among other things, streets and highways, bridges and storm drainage systems to be undertaken in the next ensuing two fiscal years."

County voters in 1988 also approved $5 million in bond money to pay for light rail, said Michael McMahon, assistant county attorney.

Mr. McMahon said the county would argue that the wording of the ballot question was decided by the Baltimore County Council, acting under authority specified in the county charter, and that the plaintiffs were seeking to usurp that authority.

"Our position is that the ballot question was general enough to encompass an entire class of projects typified by transportation facilities, such as the light rail," he said.

He added that if the plaintiffs were successful, it could jeopardize a crucial share of funding for the project.

Stephen G. Zentz, deputy secretary of transportation, said he doubted the suit could have much practical effect on the project.

"I can't imagine that it would bring the project to a halt," he said.

A hearing is set for May 30.

Mr. Abrams said the coalition would want the county to use the $10 million to reduce noise and solve other problems that would be created by the light rail line.

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