Two decades ago, the Maryland Department of Transportation unveiled plans to study a much-needed east-west transit link in Baltimore that could ultimately connect the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and U.S. Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn to the west with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center to the east. Not long after, the Red Line received the official greenlight from then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, the effort boosted by nearly $1 billion pledged by federal authorities to help build a light rail line. What happened next became Exhibit A for anyone making the case that Baltimore has been treated poorly by a Republican governor who hails from the D.C. suburbs: In 2015, Larry Hogan killed the project calling it a “boondoggle.” In the process, he shifted hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation spending elsewhere, denying a city buffeted by chronic poverty and lack of job opportunities in predominantly Black neighborhoods, which upgraded transit might have helped address.
So, imagine the surprise in certain quarters when the Hogan administration unveiled on June 1 the completion of a preliminary regional study of that exact same corridor with seven possible alternatives for future investment, the sixth of which is — drumroll, please — a light rail line that is essentially identical to the one first discussed when Parris Glendening was governor. Apparently, this “boondoggle” has a life of its own. There are several conclusions to draw from this, the most obvious of which is that the Red Line light rail project had merit then and it has merit now. There is even a remarkable bit of timing here given that mid-2022 was exactly when the original $2.9 billion was expected to be completed.
But, as they say at the Maryland Transit Administration when asked to rate CityLink crosstown bus service, “Whoa, not so fast.” First, most of the other alternatives feature what is known as “bus rapid transit,” a much less costly mode featuring upgraded buses with the advantage of their own roadways or dedicated lanes that allow them to circumvent traffic and receive signal priority at intersections. BRT has its merits, such as being less costly than fixed rail systems. But it has its disadvantages, too, particularly when buses come in conflict with cars. And just because light rail made the list doesn’t mean that it would emerge as the preferred mode; it only demonstrates that it was considered under the 25-year Regional Transit Plan.
No, the real reason no one should get too excited about a Red Line revival is that whether light rail or bus rapid transit or even an extension of the Baltimore subway system (featured in Alternative 3, incidentally) is considered the best choice for planning purposes, there is no pot of cash sitting around ready to finance such a project. Oh, there are good intentions. U.S. Sen Ben Cardin, who helped direct federal funding for the original Red Line, can surely get the Biden administration’s help again, but Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund would need a serious infusion of new revenue to finance a project of this scale. And has anyone noticed where public opinion is running concerning the Trust Fund’s single largest source of revenue, the gas tax, these days? Lawmakers in Annapolis might backfill the TTF with general fund money, but $1 billion or more? Good luck with that plan.
The only truly meaningful part of this exercise is to underscore the clout Maryland’s governor wields when it comes to picking — and funding — the state’s transportation agenda. Baltimore area voters would be wise to pay close attention to what this year’s crop of gubernatorial candidates are saying about Baltimore’s transportation infrastructure. Even those who claim they intend to restore the original Red Line plans should reveal where they’d find the money to pay for a project likely to cost much more than the original $2.9 billion. Finding support among Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly could prove challenging as well given this city’s diminishing political clout and all the statewide focus on Baltimore’s high homicide count without a corresponding level of urgency in addressing the socioeconomic factors feeding into it. Meanwhile, Governor Hogan can publicly talk about gas tax “holidays” while quietly reducing the city’s influence further, like when he last month vetoed House Bill 1336, which would have established a commission to study how Baltimore might assume control of and finance its transit services instead of leaving them to a state agency.
With Baltimore public transportation, it seems, commuters are likely to be left at least a day late and a few billion dollars short.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.