State pushes ahead to draft blueprints for $2.2 billion Red Line project

Even though there's no promise of construction money, the state is pushing ahead to draft blueprints for Baltimore's $2.2 billion Red Line light rail project.

The Maryland Transit Authority has asked a regional transportation panel to approve $55.6 million in federal funds for preliminary engineering — a request that was put on hold last year until congressional passage of a two-year, $105 billion transportation package.

The Baltimore Regional Transportation Board is scheduled to vote on the request Nov. 27 and will accept public comments at a meeting Thursday afternoon at Baltimore Metropolitan Council headquarters.

"This year and next is all about design," said Henry Kay, the MTA's executive director of transit development. "Preliminary engineering includes setting the route and station locations — which involves our stakeholders and community outreach — and refining cost estimates."

The business community is eager to see the rail line project keep its momentum.

"We believe the Red Line — and we believe the state sees the Red Line — as a top priority," said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "We have not had a substantial investment in transit in the Baltimore region in decades. Currently, we have no transit system. We have a couple of lines that don't connect. We think that's a compelling argument."

Fry called the Red Line "truly a jobs line, with a couple hundred thousands jobs along the corridor. Right now, it's difficult to move from one area of the region to the other. It touches a large portion of the region."

The east-west light rail would cover the 14 miles between Woodlawn and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, providing transportation to as many as 57,000 passengers daily, a preliminary study found. Construction is projected to begin in 2015, with a completion date of 2021.

"That's a long way from now, but a lot has to happen between now and then," Kay said.

To stay on schedule, the state has been covering the costs incurred in early engineering with the hopes of federal reimbursement, he said.

The Obama administration put Baltimore's light rail line on a fast track for expedited permitting and environmental review. Getting final federal approval would help Maryland land a 50-50 match with federal funds.

Earlier this year, TRIP, a national nonprofit research organization sponsored by the construction industry, insurance companies and unions, ranked the Red Line the seventh most important project in the region.

However, in order to put a shovel in the ground, Maryland officials have about a year to prove to the Federal Transit Administration that they can come up with $1.1 billion. Otherwise, they will fall behind other jurisdictions in the fierce competition for federal money.

Making their task more difficult is the fact that the O'Malley administration hopes to build the $1.9 billion Purple Line light rail between Bethesda and New Carrollton during roughly the same time period using the same funding formula. That project was No. 4 on TRIP's list.

The funding loser likely would be delayed for a minimum of five years, state transportation officials believe.

The most persuasive evidence that Maryland could pay its way fell by the wayside earlier this year, when state lawmakers refused to raise the gas tax — the traditional transportation funding mechanism.

Fry, a former state delegate and senator, said the issue was buried under a mountain of other priorities, such as marriage equality, expanded gambling and the Dream Act, and by the time it surfaced in the final days of the session, lawmakers "had lost the political will to take on any more challenges."

"The reality is, the lack of transportation funding is one of the biggest economic challenges we're facing in this state," he said. "This is clearly going to require some strong support from the administration and the presiding officers and leadership from both houses."

The Washington suburbs have been the beneficiary of a number of big-ticket transportation projects in recent years, including the $2.56 billion Intercounty Connector and the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge that carries Interstate 95 over the Potomac River.

Fry declined to say which region has a greater need for light rail except to note, "When it comes to transit, Baltimore is deficient in comparison to our Washington suburbs. ... When you look at the congestion we have in the greater Baltimore region — we're No. 6 in the country and No. 1 in regions under 3 million people — that should send a signal that we have a situation we have to address sooner rather than later."

The Baltimore Regional Transportation Board will meet at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at 1500 Whetstone Way in Locust Point.

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