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Don't kill the 'Jobs Line'

Killing the Red Line now would cost Baltimore thousands of jobs

The future of two proposed light rail systems in Maryland rest largely in the hands of Gov.-elect Larry Hogan who has expressed skepticism about both. Whether that's because the Republican would prefer to spend transportation dollars on highways and bridges or to restore so-called "Highway User Revenue" to local governments, or because he simply doesn't believe in spending tax dollars on urban transit, is not clear. As a candidate for governor and in the weeks since his election, he's been careful not to commit himself to specifics on future transportation spending.

But this much is certain: It's entirely within Mr. Hogan's authority to halt both the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs and the Red Line in Baltimore in their tracks. That gives supporters of those projects a brief window of opportunity to convince the incoming governor that the light rail lines are vital to this state's future. Now is the time for Baltimore's business community to rally around this project and convince Mr. Hogan that if he wants to bring jobs and economic development to the state, the Red Line is one sure-fire way to do it.

For Baltimore, the stakes are clear. The proposed Red Line would bring a veritable tsunami of jobs to a city starving for them. The city's unemployment rate of 9.8 percent last year was by far the highest in Central Maryland and three points above the statewide average. All told, supporters say the Red Line would create or support 9,800 jobs during the construction phase.

But more important, the proposed east-west light rail line running from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview would connect people with economic opportunity on a more permanent basis. According to one study, stations along the 14-mile Red Line route are within a half-mile of 184,000 jobs. By 2030, 210,000 jobs or 73 percent of the city's employment base will fall within that geographic pattern. For transit planners, that's a pretty sweet achievement.

Is the $2.9 billion project costly? Yes, it is. But that's money well spent if it helps make Baltimore less dependent on state aid to serve its existing residents and help attract new ones. It's also an expense that federal and local governments have already pledged to share with the U.S. Department of Transportation, accounting for about $900 million or nearly one-third of the cost. Private investors are expected to help foot the bill as well.

In recent months, some city residents have complained that the Red Line's route, particularly on the city's east side, is too costly and disruptive, but a recent analysis by state transit planners found the Right Rail Coalition's alternative proposal, which involves a combination of light rail, Metro subway and streetcars, is just as pricey as the Maryland Transit Administration's preferred route but potentially less effective.

And there are other benefits. The Red Line offers an opportunity to redevelop some struggling neighborhoods that are along the route and reduce air pollution and commuting costs. It's likely to be a particularly helpful addition to attracting millennials to Baltimore. The younger, college-educated crowd has shown a preference for urban living and public transportation. The number of millennials living near downtown increased 92 percent from 2000 to 2010, the fourth-highest among 51 metropolitan areas examined in a recent study.

Denying Baltimore it's much sought-after Red Line might not be good politics for Mr. Hogan either. It won't help him balance the state's operating budget, reportedly his main focus, as transportation dollars are kept apart from the general fund, but it will stir a strongly negative reaction from city lawmakers including Del. Maggie McIntosh, the new chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee who has a major say in what happens to the governor's spending plans. Keep it in the budget and Mr. Hogan will have demonstrated with a single stroke of the pen that's he's listening to the city's concerns. The Red Line also benefits Baltimore County, perhaps the most crucial jurisdiction for his re-election hopes.

On the other hand, should he cancel or continually delay the Red Line now, Maryland will have spent $236.8 million on planning and engineering for nothing. Disrupt the plan, and there's no guarantee that the Baltimore line will be returned to the federal government's list of new transit projects to be funded. As it is, the Red Line isn't expected to be completed until 2022. Set it aside for the next four years and you can probably add a decade to the wait, perhaps even longer.

If he redirects transportation dollars that might otherwise have gone into the Red Line to local transportation aid or road paving, Mr. Hogan will be a hero to those county councilmen and bureaucrats who gather at Maryland Association of Counties confabs, and perhaps to highway contractors who stand to profit. But if he wants to be a two-term governor and broaden his appeal to voters, Mr. Hogan ought to rename the project the "Jobs Line" and happily break ground for a major economic development initiative.

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