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Odds of Red Line resurrection slim in Baltimore, but upgrading east-west city transit is an achievable goal | COMMENTARY

The town houses at Oldham Crossing in Greektown — which has been rediscovered of late for its proximity to major commuter thoroughfares and to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center campus — are billed as luxurious, with big bathrooms, up to four bedrooms and well-appointed kitchens. There’s even a dog park. What’s not commonly mentioned is that the community sits near Eastern Avenue in the middle of what was once regarded as the right-of-way for the Red Line, the $2.9 billion east-west light rail project that Gov. Larry Hogan canceled six years ago.

The townhomes are surely a welcome addition to a working class East Baltimore neighborhood, but their presence also serves to symbolize how talk about reviving the Red Line — an issue raised this week by its inclusion in the U.S. Senate’s version of infrastructure legislation — is complicated.

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On Monday, U.S. Sens., Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, announced that they had “secured language in the bipartisan infrastructure legislation currently being considered by the Senate that would expedite the Red Line rail project in Baltimore, should state and local leaders choose to restart it.”

The language — for “project re-entry” on page 1,237 of the bill’s 2,702 pages — is not the only example of Red Line promotion of late, either. At a July 26 “summit” on regional transportation issues, Senator Cardin acknowledged talking to Mayor Brandon Scott about a Red Line resurrection, which the mayor later confirmed.

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There’s nothing wrong with keeping options open, of course, but a reality check is needed. Could the Red Line be revived? With the political will and the finances, just about anything is possible. And the right-of-way could be rerouted around those Greektown town houses if necessary. But there are reasons to be skeptical — deeply skeptical — that this talk of the Red Line will amount to anything more than talk.

First, there’s the little matter of how Maryland’s transportation cupboard is essentially bare. Financing to pay the state’s portion of the costly project that was made possible by the last Maryland gas tax increase under then-Gov. Martin O’Malley has been diverted to other transportation improvements. And a public-private partnership, or P3, to pay for the system seems unlikely, given how the partially-built Purple Line in the D.C. suburbs has struggled under those terms.

Meanwhile, the Red Line is probably much more expensive to build today than it would have been six years ago. Even the Senate infrastructure language ensures only that the Red Line get “full and fair” consideration, not that the federal government (or any government) come up with the money to pay for it. A spokesman for Mayor Scott acknowledges this, noting that funding remains unlikely for the moment. “To put it into context, the state was working on the Red Line for roughly 20 years before the cancellation, so it is not possible to just “restart” the project,” writes Calvin Harris, the mayor’s communications director.

And here’s a more fundamental question: Would the Red Line be the best approach to improving city transit services? To restart the project would require, among other things, a more up-to-date study of its feasibility, its environmental impact and whether it has sufficient community support. Will downtown Baltimore be as big a commuting draw post-COVID-19? Red Line advocates sometimes forget that certain neighborhoods (like Canton, for example) were not enthusiastic about light rail the first time around. It would need a champion in Congress (Senator Cardin, for example) to help Baltimore chase dollars that might otherwise go to bigger cities with greater political clout. And it probably would have to wait until Mr. Hogan leaves office in early 2023. What governor would admit he made such an enormous mistake? Responding to questions last week about whether the Red Line might be revived, a spokesperson for the Maryland Transit Administration said only that the agency in May committed to studying potential improvements to the same east-west corridor under its Regional Transit Plan. Not exactly a Red Line endorsement.

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The more realistic outcome would likely be for the east-west corridor study to take place and perhaps an alternative mode to the Red Line, developed. A Bus Rapid Transit system is one possibility, with dedicated bus lines and traffic light priority. More reliable than typical bus service but potentially less expensive and more flexible than light rail (particularly if it means not tunneling under downtown Baltimore), BRT might find smoother sailing through Annapolis and Capitol Hill than reviving the Red Line outright.

From the beginning, the point of the Red Line was to markedly improve transit service to some of the city’s least well-connected neighborhoods. If Democrats under President Joe Biden are serious about fixing Baltimore (and other cities with both high-homicide and high-unemployment numbers), they’d be wise to invest in innovative ways to better connect people to jobs. Whether that means trains, buses or personalized scooters is immaterial. The need to make a smart transportation investment, not necessarily to revive a discarded approach, should be seen as the goal.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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