Mass transit systems need to be as cost-effective as possible; there's never been much doubt about that. But to make cost-effectiveness the primary criterion by which any proposed new bus and rail systems are judged is a short-sighted and perhaps even costly mistake.
That error - committed by the transit-averse administration of President George W. Bush - was rectified last week. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced that the federal government is going back to a policy of looking at a broad range of factors, including a start-up project's impact on economic development, the environment and land use, when deciding whether it should be funded.
That could prove exceedingly helpful to the Baltimore area, where transit advocates are hoping construction on the east-west Red Line, the 14.5-mile light rail system from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, could be started as early as 2013. Economic development is one of the project's best arguments.
But perhaps even more important, the decision should allow the Maryland Transit Administration to re-think one of the agency's more regrettable choices. In order to shave about $70 million from the Red Line's cost, planners opted last year to delete one of the tunnels originally slated to go under Cooks Lane, leaving the system with a mile-long single-track segment.
Baltimore light rail riders know full well what single-track means. When trains going in opposite directions have to take turns sharing track, the system slows down considerably, and if any problems arise on that segment - a breakdown or signal failure - there's no alternative available to re-route trains.
That's why the MTA invested so much to double-track Baltimore's existing light rail in recent years and why the Cooks Tunnel savings wouldn't produce any real savings at all. On the books, the proposal may look more cost-effective, but the MTA was probably going to have to eventually build a second tunnel anyway (no doubt at a cost well above the projected $70 million).
Of course, that doesn't mean Maryland can spend willy-nilly on the Red Line and expect it to be built. Neighborhood groups in Canton and along Edmondson Avenue want tunnels, but even with the Obama administration's policy change, they remain cost-prohibitive.
And while the Red Line may now be judged sufficiently cost-effective to qualify for funding, the route to securing that money is far from obstacle-free.
Not only is the federal government's commitment to paying for transportation in flux these days (Congress and the Obama administration have yet to devise a suitable source of revenue), but Maryland also can't afford to build much of anything without an increase in the gas tax or something equivalent to refill the state's depleted Transportation Trust Fund.
The Red Line is one of three mass transit projects Maryland needs to fund. Add together the cost of the two in the Washington region (the Purple Line from New Carrollton to Silver Spring and the Corridor Cities Transitway along I-270 to Clarksburg), and Maryland is looking to invest nearly $4 billion in transit, for which the state and federal government would split the cost 50-50.
That's a tall order, particularly at a time when political leaders have little interest in raising taxes. But failure to invest in adequate public transportation is bound to prove costly, too. While the recession has momentarily rocked Maryland's economy, traffic gridlock could be even more destructive in the long term.
Readers respond I still think it's a terrible idea to have surface tracks on Boston Street. The Red Line should be running underneath Eastern Avenue.
Even surface tracks on Fleet and/or Eastern would be a big improvement since it would significantly enlarge the population that the Red Line would serve. Let the whining NIMBYs on Boston Street miss out on the benefits.
Eastern Avenue is a better route, overall, because the line can go straight through to Highlandtown, Greektown and Bayview. There could be a huge improvement to those areas, making them much more desirable places to live.
The major drawback is that it leaves Canton out.