New cost projections for a proposed east-west transit line across Baltimore show that the most widely favored alternatives are too expensive to qualify for federal funding, while the only clearly affordable choices are ones already rejected by City Hall.
Cost-effectiveness figures released this week by the Maryland Transit Administration for the proposed Red Line show alternatives that involve tunneling to put portions of the line underground exceed the federal standard for consideration of 50 percent funding of the project.
The Red Line, a top priority of city elected officials and business leaders, was originally envisioned as a connection between the Woodlawn area - site of Social Security headquarters and other major federal installations - and Canton.
The O'Malley administration decided to expand the scope of the project to take in the Johns Hopkins Bayview medical complex, an important employment center in East Baltimore.
Of the alternatives the MTA considered for the Red Line, three light rail options and four involving "rapid" buses in dedicated lanes would have taken portions of the line underground.
All of them exceeded the figure of $24 per hour of user benefit that Federal Transit Administration uses as its cut-off line for judging the cost-effectiveness of competing transit proposals.
The two proposals involving the most tunneling - and the least potential disruption to neighborhoods - came in so far over the mark that MTA officials said it is practically impossible to fund them.
"They're pretty far away," said Henry Kay, deputy MTA administrator for planning, at a meeting of the Red Line Citizens Advisory Council on Thursday night.
Those alternatives would have run the line underground down Cooks Lane and Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore and through downtown and Fells Point.
MTA officials said several alternatives involving less extensive tunneling came close enough to the federal cutoff line that they might be able to "tweak" them to the point that they could qualify for federal funding - though such measures as eliminating stations or building the line in segments rather than at its full 14.5-mile length.
But while those alternatives might preserve tunneling through downtown, Fells Point and Cooks Lane, they would require the MTA to run the line on the surface along Edmondson Avenue - a prospect that is anathema to many West Baltimore residents.
The state has already filed a draft environmental impact statement with the federal transit agency.
The MTA expects to hold public hearings on the plans in late summer and to make a final choice of route and whether to build a bus route or a rail line this winter.
The MTA figures for cost-effectiveness - a formula that weighs projected ridership, construction costs and other factors - show that all-surface bus rapid transit and light rail would qualify with figures of $18 and $22 respectively, compared with almost $64 for the most expensive alternative of rapid bus with extensive tunneling.
But Baltimore Transportation Director Alfred H. Foxx Jr. told the citizens council that the city would not support a surface route through downtown because of the impact on traffic.
State Sen. Verna Jones, a Baltimore Democrat, said she believes that the MTA has a good chance of devising an alternative plan that would fall under the $24 barrier.
"I believe we need to do more tweaking with the different alternatives, and we'll come up with a project that makes sense," she said. "I don't think there are any deal breakers. I think everything can be worked out."
For some residents of communities along the proposed path, the deal has already been broken.
Denise Bouknight, a board member of the West Hills Community Association, said she flatly opposes the project.
Even if the MTA tunnels under Cooks Lane, a largely residential street that connects U.S. 40 with Security Boulevard, the Red Line could "destroy" her neighborhood, she said.
Bouknight told MTA officials that they don't appear to care about the residents.
"We did not ask you to come into our community," she said.
But others said they would keep looking for a way to build the system without harming the communities it passes through.
"There's no option. We need this system," said Warren Smith, a West Hills resident who serves on the advisory council. "It's just the process of us getting there does not value the community."
Lost in the discussion of bus rapid transit and light rail cost projections were proposals for a traditional heavy-rail subway system. MTA officials said a less formal study of a subway alternative showed costs roughly similar to the most expensive light rail and bus option.
But Ed Cohen, president of the Transit Riders Action Council and a member of the advisory panel, said the MTA's numbers showed that most of the cost of building heavy rail would come from underground construction on the west side.
He said a mostly elevated heavy rail line - running from the existing Johns Hopkins Metro station to the Baltimore Travel Plaza on the east side - would be an affordable and faster alternative to light rail or bus.
He suggested a subway line could be extended to the west side in phases.
Cohen said local opposition to any plans that involve a surface line through neighborhoods could doom the Red Line as it vies with other transit projects for limited federal funds.
"It's hard to see how we'd win in the competition even if we qualify," he said.