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Getting on board

The Baltimore Sun

Mayor Sheila Dixon and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. plan to announce tomorrow that they support construction of an east-west light rail line that involves a mix of surface and underground tracks - an alternative that has won the support of Baltimore business leaders.

The heads of the two metropolitan governments will urge the Maryland Transit Administration to choose what is known as Alternative 4C as its preferred design for the proposed Red Line from Woodlawn to Bayview. The $1.6 billion proposal would run light rail in tunnels under downtown, Fells Point and Cooks Lane in West Baltimore, but would otherwise operate on the surface.

Dixon said yesterday that the Red Line, which could open as early as 2012 if the project can avoid snags, is crucial to the region's economic future. "We have no comprehensive transportation system in this city," she said "We have to get away from relying on cars."

Smith said the Red Line would provide opportunities for redevelopment in the county, especially around Security Square Mall and the Medicare-Medicaid complex in Woodlawn.

"We can't move forward as an innovative and forward-thinking community without a world-class public transit system, and this is an opportunity and it's time to make it a reality," Smith said.

Civic leaders have been hinting for months that they favor the plan and that they saw problems with other light rail and rapid bus alternatives. The Greater Baltimore Committee took the lead in advocating the limited-tunnel light rail plan when it endorsed Alternative 4C in September.

The announcement puts the two jurisdictions most affected by the choice on record in support of a "locally preferred alternative" when the MTA takes its decision to the federal government in an application for funds.

Henry M. Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning and engineering, said it would be unusual for a public transit agency to make a selection that flies in the face of the will of local political leaders. "Elected officials - that's their role is to capture and articulate the desires of their constituents," he said.

Dixon's support for 4C could be crucial for another reason. The proposal has been greeted with suspicion in West Baltimore, where some residents have perceived the plan, which involves running the tracks on the surface along Edmondson Avenue, as racially discriminatory. As an African-American and a resident of the Edmondson Avenue (U.S. 40) corridor, Dixon has been working with community leaders in West Baltimore to allay concerns.

The mayor said the surface Red Line plan is part of a larger community development effort that would reroute much of the commuter traffic that now uses U.S. 40. By narrowing the avenue and slowing traffic, city officials hope to move many of the commuters onto the Red Line as transit riders or onto the Beltway and Interstate 395 as drivers.

"What we want to do is bring back Edmondson Avenue into a neighborhood that's greener," said Dixon, who lives in Hunting Ridge. "My house is three doors off Edmondson. I believe it's going to enhance my community."

Many residents of West Baltimore, as well as some in East Baltimore, favor an alternative that would have put the light rail line underground for much of its 14.6-mile length, including stretches along Boston Street and Edmondson Avenue.

But MTA officials said months ago that studies showed that those alternatives, because of their extensive tunneling, would almost certainly be too costly to win approval under federal cost-benefit standards.

Angela Bethea-Spearman, president of the Uplands Community Association, testified in favor of the maximum-tunnel option during public hearings last month. But she said she's been warming up to the 4C plan "with modifications" since the adoption of a Red Line "community compact" specifying how the city and the MTA would work with residents.

"There must be some community benefits and there must be some assurances, and they have to be documented," said Bethea-Spearman, who also heads the Southwest Development Committee.

Bus rapid transit, dedicated bus lanes with various levels of tunneling, is an alternative that is on the table, but recent public hearings revealed little support for it. Aides said Smith and Dixon prefer light rail because it offers a greater sense of permanence that would better encourage transit-oriented development along the route.

"There's enough challenge in getting people to turn to mass transit, and buses are not exactly the most attractive modes of transportation in the minds of many people," Smith said.

Some transit advocates, dissatisfied with the relatively slow speeds of light rail, continue to hold out hope for a heavy-rail alternative similar to the Metro. They contend that the MTA has rejected that alternative without giving it sufficient consideration.

"They have not done a study of all reasonable alternatives as required by federal law," said Christopher Field, president of the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore. "The Red Line is supposed to be a regional transportation line, not a local line, and light rail is much more suitable for a local line."

MTA and Dixon administration officials say one of the reasons for community resistance to light rail on the Red Line is the negative impression left by the north-south Central Light Rail Line that opened in the early 1990s.

Dixon said light rail now uses a far more advanced technology. "It's a more quiet type of car. It's a smaller type of car," she said.

Aides said Dixon is pledging "strategic investments" in the Edmondson Avenue corridor to complement the surface Red Line, including $24 million for redevelopment and infrastructure in the Uplands neighborhood; $1.65 million for street lights in Ten Hills, Hunting Ridge, Dickeyville and Historic Franklintown; and $1.05 million for development and streetscaping around the West Baltimore MARC station.

WHY THIS OPTION?

Supporters cite these reasons, among others, for backing Red Line Alternative 4C:

* Light rail would attract more riders than "bus rapid transit," the other method under consideration.

* The 4C plan includes tunneling where surface tracks would disrupt traffic the most - downtown, Fells Point and Cooks Lane.

* The 4C plan would cost about $600 million less than another that relies more on tunnels, enabling it to meet a federal cost-benefit test.

* Where light rail is on the surface, it can be the centerpiece for community development and part of a strategy for diverting car traffic onto transit or onto routes that avoid residential communities.

* New light rail systems bear little resemblance to the 1990s north-south line through Baltimore.

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