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Baltimore’s Purple Line: Been there, done that, had it canceled | COMMENTARY

Gov. Larry Hogan canceled the Red Line after the city's unrest in 2015, along with its promise of jobs and development. | Source: Maryland Transit Administration
Gov. Larry Hogan canceled the Red Line after the city's unrest in 2015, along with its promise of jobs and development. | Source: Maryland Transit Administration (Baltimore Sun Graphic)

It’s closing in on six years since Gov. Larry Hogan killed the Red Line, Baltimore’s $2.9 billion east-west light rail project, so some details about it might now be a bit fuzzy for him. Even so, it was pretty remarkable to hear Maryland’s governor, in testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last Wednesday, suggest that Baltimore may one day get a light rail line like the Purple Line if it provided a “system” and if it were made “attractive to the private sector.” The Purple Line is, of course, the $5.6 billion, 16-mile light rail line connecting suburbs just north of the District of Columbia that has been delayed by a contract dispute for which Maryland had to fork over an extra quarter-billion-dollars in December. As a transit project, the Red Line was not terribly different other than it represented an investment in communities more burdened by concentrated poverty and joblessness and less well-served by transit options than Purple Line stops in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Governor Hogan’s first mistake was to perceive the Purple Line as attractive to the private sector and the Red Line as not. The Purple Line is a P3 — a public-private partnership. That allows a private company or group of companies to build and operate a transit system that would still be owned by the government but for which the private company receives revenue. In highway P3 projects, the revenue comes from tolls. In transit, it means fares plus some minimum guaranteed amount courtesy of the taxpayers. The Red Line was devised as a P3, too. Aside from the downtown tunnel (which would have been directly funded by government because of the risk involved), the rest would have been as P3. The private sector was never unfriendly toward the Red Line. Why would it be? The winning company would have been guaranteed what’s known as “availability payments.” Same as with the Purple Line.

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The claim is a variation on the notion that the Red Line was a “boondoggle” and the Purple Line made far greater sense financially. In reality, the two lines received the same rating by federal authorities. Indeed, there’s a lot of history here. The only reason the Red Line came so close to fruition in the first place (with an estimated $300 million spent on planning, design and land acquisition prior to it being axed) was that it was paired with the Purple Line when the General Assembly approved a major increase in transportation funding under Gov. Martin O’Malley eight years ago. It was the city’s slice of that particular pie.

As for Mr. Hogan’s claim about how it was “just one line,” that’s hard to dispute. Baltimore never received the kind of investment the Washington, D.C., area got with the development of the Metrorail system, the third largest heavy rail transit system in the nation. The Red Line was meant to help make up some of that lost ground and would have allowed riders to transfer to other modes by way of West Baltimore MARC, the existing light rail at Howard Street, the Metro Subway near the Inner Harbor, and the MARC Penn Line at Johns Hopkins Bayview as well as numerous bus lines.

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One of the big mistakes the state can make about transportation policy is to see it only as a response to need and not a driver of it. In reality, transportation infrastructure invites development. When the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built in 1952, it wasn’t instantly inundated with traffic. It invited use and, over many years, jobs and economic opportunities sprang up along the U.S. 50 corridor all the way to Ocean City. If Baltimore had a higher functioning transit system, it would boost post-pandemic development in the city as well. And if Maryland is serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and “smart growth,” it would be investing more in urban rail lines and less in widening suburban highways.

If Governor Hogan is going to continue to speak out on transportation infrastructure (as he did when he headed the National Governor Association), he’s going to have to develop a better excuse for the Red Line’s cancellation. Here’s one suggestion: “I didn’t need city votes to win election in 2014 or 2018.” It’s honest. It’s to the point. And it can’t seriously be disputed. The truth is that the Red Line stands in history as a huge opportunity squandered for a city long held back by a different kind of “red lining,” the kind where low-income neighborhoods of color regularly get left behind.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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