Baltimore needs transit

Could Baltimore see a light rail expansion after all?

Each year, all 24 Maryland subdivisions submit to the state what are essentially wish lists for future transportation spending. What topped this year's request from Baltimore County for the Consolidated Transportation Program? A new public transit system to connect Woodlawn with Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore.

If that sounds familiar, that's because it is. What County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is seeking is slightly less than half the Red Line, the $2.9 billion light rail system that Gov. Larry Hogan axed last year. This isn't the first time Mr. Kamenetz has gone to bat for transit — he previously asked officials to study Red Line alternatives — but it does underscore how the lack of a viable east-west public transportation system in the Baltimore region is a problem that isn't going away.

What the county executive envisions isn't necessarily a Red Line Lite. He specifically mentions rapid bus transit (a surface bus system with dedicated right-of-way) as a potential alternative as well as traditional fixed rail. It also isn't the first time that a Westside transit project with Lexington Market as its eastern terminus has been proposed — the non-profit advocacy group Right Rail Coalition suggested something similar (along with an extension of the Metro subway and some streetcar lines) back when the Red Line was still on the drawing board.

What are the chances the Maryland Department of Transportation will pounce on this and secure a place on the six-year capital spending plan for Westside transit? We're not holding our breath. Governor Hogan has so far been a big a fan of highway spending, not significant mass transit investments. But that doesn't mean Mr. Kamenetz hasn't made some important points.

As the county executive notes in his Oct. 20 letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, tinkering with existing bus service isn't going to solve the region's traffic congestion now rated as the fifth worst in the country. To get new "choice" riders on transit (the kind who can afford a car) requires more than rearranging bus schedules or stops as the Maryland Transit Administration is currently attempting to do. You need speed and accessibility.

What doomed the Red Line, Mr. Hogan claimed, was the cost of a downtown tunnel. A Woodlawn-to-Lexington system wouldn't have that expense. But it would still serve one of the region's more important employment centers, the Social Security Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Woodlawn. Commuters headed to the east could use Metro to get at least as far as Johns Hopkins Hospital.

We don't know if this is an ideal replacement for the Red Line, but it certainly ought to be studied. The abbreviated system would obviously have a lot less ridership (serving primarily the Edmondson Avenue corridor instead of places like Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton), wouldn't connect as well to the existing light rail line and could negatively impact Saratoga Street (assuming it uses that route) and perhaps even Lexington Market. But at least Mr. Kamenetz recognizes that the state needs to get the ball rolling on a truly transformative transit project for Baltimore.

Of course, it may all be politics and another poke between the Democratic county executive and the Republican governor, given the prospect that Mr. Kamenetz might challenge Mr. Hogan in the 2018 election. But it would be nice to imagine that the two politicians could put their differences aside and actually work on a better solution than rejiggering the Mass Transit Administration bus schedule.

As we've noted before, the cancellation of the Red Line wasn't entirely the governor's fault. Had local officials been prepared with a Plan B, a lower-cost alternative, perhaps Mr. Hogan might have thrown his support behind it much as he did for a reduced-price Purple Line, the planned 16-mile light rail connecting Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Better that Mr. Kamenetz's support for a major new investment in public transit for Baltimore be viewed as a step in the right direction rather than a political shot fired. Now, it's up to the governor to demonstrate that he's willing to compromise — not for the sake of Mr. Kamenetz but for the economic well-being of the Baltimore region.

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