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Derailing Maryland light rail

Might Larry Hogan spare the Red Line from the chopping block only to slowly strangle it instead?

With hundreds of millions of dollars already invested in the Red and Purple rail line transit projects, and strong support for them displayed not only by local governments but from business leaders, there is a growing suspicion that Gov. Larry Hogan may ultimately keep Maryland's two light rail projects on track. The question is, at what cost?

Long before he took office, Mr. Hogan spoke disparagingly of Maryland's light rail plans and their price tags — currently pegged at a combined $5.3 billion. One can predict where this might be going when you add to that equation the governor's disdain for the gas tax increase that is helping finance these projects; his strongly-held belief that his predecessor was too generous with taxpayer dollars; and his choice of veteran transportation official Pete Rahn, who developed a reputation for cost-cutting during stints in New Mexico and Missouri, as his transportation secretary.

In a matter of months, the governor may announce that he's been able to find millions of dollars of potential cost-savings within the projects (and perhaps will require local governments to bear a greater share of the cost to further reduce the state's tab), and as a result, that he's decided to allow the light rail lines to move forward. In so doing, he'll have avoided a fight with the state's congressional delegation and the leaders of its largest subdivisions as well as satisfied many in the business community — a win-win-win for a governor who claims to embrace political compromise whenever possible.

But here's the problem with that scenario: Baltimore has seen what happens when transit cost-cutting goes too far. The city has been living with those results for more than two decades and it's a big reason why even now support for the Red Line in some neighborhoods is on the tepid side. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the Central Light Rail Line.

When William Donald Schaefer first proposed the Hunt Valley-to-Glen-Burnie light rail line in 1987, he promised to get it done for $290 million, a minuscule sum for a major public works project even then. The number proved hopelessly unrealistic but the administration worked hard to bring it in as close to that original plan as possible, ruthlessly cutting costs. The result was surely the cheapest light rail of modern times, at least on a per-mile basis, but one that was heavily compromised.

Here's what that effort wrought: long stretches of single track where northbound and southbound trains had to take turns, trains dispatched by radio rather than electronic signal systems and a pokey at-grade ride down Howard Street. The system was slow, the minimum headway between trains was too long and the stops were little more than benches and balky ticket machines. Bus riders adapted (they were essentially forced to do so as north-south bus lines funneled them into light rail) but car-driving suburbanites? They turned up their collective noses.

In the intervening years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into the system to upgrade it including double-tracking finished a decade ago. But the damage was done (and Howard Street remained a frustratingly slow slog). Ridership never reached projections nor did the system earn the fare box recovery rate its promoters promised as commuters stayed away in droves.

Fast-forward to today's projects. Cutting significant costs likely means making similar compromises. With the Red Line, there are two big potential targets — the tunnel under Cooks Lane in West Baltimore and the longer one downtown. Eliminating either would not only seriously delay Red Line trains, it would interfere with street-level commuting just as Howard Street trains have done. Even shortening or narrowing the bigger tunnel might prove problematic.

That's not to suggest Mr. Rahn might not find efficiencies or that affluent Montgomery County might not have the financial wherewithal to contribute more to its Purple Line. The current top-down review of the projects is a worthwhile exercise. But Mr. Hogan must also be mindful of the phrase, "penny-wise and pound foolish," and not seek to subtract so much from the light rail projects that their core purpose is lost for the sake of relatively minor savings.

Baltimore, in particular, needs better public transit — badly. Every rail investment made here has been a halfway effort from the region's one-line subway "system" from Owings Mills to Hopkins to its bare-bones light rail and overcrowded and insufficiently reliable commuter rail (MARC) system. The results have been depressingly predictable. This city needs the jobs, the economic development and the improved quality of life that a properly-done Red Line could bring.

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