Officials seek to get rail plan on track


Worried that too much of Maryland's transportation money is earmarked for the Washington suburbs, elected officials from the Baltimore area are pressing the Ehrlich administration to commit to building the ambitious Baltimore Regional Rail Plan.

The rail plan must make it onto a list of new state transportation projects that is due to Congress by Feb. 28 - or wait six years before getting another shot. The list is being drawn up by the governor's office.

"It's time for us to be aggressive," said Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, saying the region has not fought hard enough for its road and transit needs. "We've got to make sure we're not totally lost when it comes to potential funding."

Officials are worried that the Washington area is gobbling up so much of the state's transportation money - given the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge project and the proposed $1.5 billion Intercounty Connector - that no money will be left for Baltimore's rail plan.

It does not help, they say, that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plans to take $300 million out of the transportation trust fund to balance the budget, casting doubt over whether the state will be able to match federal dollars on projects in the next few years.

"Transportation investment is not coming to the Baltimore region to the degree it's coming to other regions of the state," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "And if we're going to remain the economic center of the state, it's important that we make new investments in critical infrastructure."

The rail plan would add 66 miles of passenger rail to the 43 that exist, creating a system out of the disjointed light rail and subway lines that run in the Baltimore area. The plan calls for six transit lines weaving through the city and its suburbs, at a cost of $12 billion.

Officials are not asking for all of that at once. They hope to get one of those six lines included in the federal transportation bill, which would make the project eligible for federal funding. One priority is the proposed Red Line from Woodlawn to Fells Point. That part of the line would cost at least $1.2 billion, to be split between the federal government and the state.

Just a 'concept'

Ehrlich's nominee for transportation secretary, Robert P. Flanagan, said the rail plan is "under active consideration" to make the list, but he raised questions about the planning that has gone into the proposal.

"What you have is a concept. It hasn't been planned," Flanagan said. He added, "One of the biggest surprises I got when I asked about these transit proposals was that the [transportation] department doesn't have a forecast for operating deficits. You need to have that information to plan out a reality-based transportation program."

Ehrlich's budget for next year includes $1.2 million in planning money for the rail plan - less than is provided for the Purple Line extension of the Washington Metro or for the proposed magnetic levitation train from Washington to Baltimore. Rail-plan advocates say they need $5 million a year to move forward and meet the goal of opening the first line within a decade.

"If we don't have any better mass transit 20 years from now than we have today, we're going to be continually chasing our tail," O'Malley said. Last week, he pulled the region's county executives together after the governor's State of the State address and told them it was time to act.

O'Malley, Owens and the executives of Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties sent a letter yesterday to Ehrlich and top administration officials urging them to make the rail plan a priority and calling it "essential if this area is to thrive and prosper in future years."

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh is convening meetings of legislators and business leaders to plot strategy for pushing the plan. Baltimore, she said, cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

"We are way behind," said McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. "The long-range concerns of a lot of policymakers and leaders in the city is that the Baltimore region, lacking a good mass transit system, is already falling behind other metro areas in terms of attracting jobs and businesses."

Transit advocates say they're glad to see officials finally coming together to fight for the rail plan. They just wish it had happened sooner. They say O'Malley in particular has been too quiet for too long.

"It's been disappointing. He's a strong figure and he could bring a whole lot of light and attention to this," said Ralph Moore, a board member of the Transit Riders League. Moore said it's frustrating to watch so many big projects in the Washington suburbs get more attention than Baltimore.

"We'll never catch up with them," he said. "They have had their act together. ... We've been demure and distracted. And if we want this badly, we need to get into the ballgame and get into it in a serious way."

O'Malley, while saying that he is always taking heat from various advocates for not paying enough attention to their particular issue, acknowledged that he and the county executives need to work more closely on transportation. And as the newly installed vice chairman of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, he said, he intends to make that happen.

"It's been somewhat difficult in Annapolis, with all the needs the city has, to raise transportation to that kind of level of saliency," the mayor said. "But we need to do it."

Regional rivals

To make the state's list, the rail plan is competing with proposals for the Intercounty Connector, an 18-mile highway from Rockville to Laurel; the Purple Line extension of the Washington Metro system in Montgomery and Prince George's counties; the Corridor Cities Transitway, a bus or light rail line along Interstate 270 between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg; and expansion of the Maryland Rail Commuter system, with added trains and new parking garages.

Ehrlich has repeatedly said the Intercounty Connector is his top transportation priority. He has been reluctant to make commitments beyond that.

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