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Tracking the Red Line [Editorial]

Baltimore's proposed Red Line passed a significant milestone this week with mixed results. The good news is that officials in Baltimore and Baltimore County pledged a combined $280 million to help build the 14-mile light rail project, less enthralling is that the total cost has risen a quarter-billion dollars to $2.9 billion.

Critics will no doubt seize on the higher cost as a sign of incompetence, waste, poor planning or the usual brickbats thrown at taxpayer-financed projects of all kinds. And while the Maryland Transit Administration is certainly capable of any of the above on any given project — the latest cost increase appears to be chiefly the result of circumstances outside the agency's control and well beyond the customary contingency set asides.

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That includes a discovery that the downtown tunnel will have to run 25 feet deeper than expected — to avoid unexpected obstacles around the Gallery Building on South Calvert Street — and because the Fells Point station will have to be bigger and deeper because of the high water table. Those are the sorts of details the MTA could not know until the route had been more deeply investigated as part of a planning process that is now about two-thirds completed. The obvious parallel is a major home improvement project which might be estimated at X dollars but gets revised when the contractor later discovers the plumbing is shot or the attic is full of mold.

Now once that process is finished and the route fully engineered down to the last blueprint and soil sample, the MTA should be prepared to stick to its budget (and it can't be much higher than where it is right now). As for whether a light rail connection from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center remains worthwhile with a 10 percent higher price tag, that's still a pretty easy call. The project is expected to provide 40,000 rides per day, connecting people to jobs in the highly-congested east-west corridor. A 2010 study estimates that it will create or support nearly 10,000 jobs and help transform struggling communities in neighborhoods formerly divided by the infamous "highway to nowhere" project.

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Seattle's light rail system, one of the country's newest, cost about $180 million per mile, and that was five years ago. Tunneling adds tremendously to cost, and the Red Line has two — one relatively short mile-long one under Cooks Lane and the other a subway-like 3.7-mile run beneath much of the downtown beginning west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and returning to the surface between Fells Point and Canton which is the real culprit. The tunnels include five underground stations that also add to the cost.

That local governments would contribute 10 percent to build this important transportation project — a participation needed to ensure the Red Line qualifies for federal funding — would seem a relatively small thing to ask. Maryland transportation officials had originally sought $200 million from the city and $50 million from Baltimore County but the new cost estimate raises that request to $230 million and $60 million, respectively.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake came through in fine form, pledging the full $230 million in a creative mix of transportation and general funds as well as in-kind contributions that will not require a tax increase or an offsetting reduction in services. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz who in June did his best Jack Benny impersonation and offered just $26.5 million with no cash whatsoever, came up with $50 million, partly in cash, but only grudgingly.

"Thus, I continue to be disappointed that local governments are now expected to contribute to this project when that was never explained to us during any of the planning stages of the Red Line," Mr. Kamenetz crankily writes to Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr. whose response to The Sun's Kevin Rector and Alison Knezevich is priceless: "We're going to have to talk about the additional $10 million but that's certainly a doable conversation."

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Hah, a "doable conversation." Good luck with that. Mr. Kamenetz may be burnishing his reputation as a skinflint but he's not winning over those who want to see Baltimore City flourish or see a bigger role for Baltimore County in regional economic development than merely keeping down government spending in Baltimore County. Previous Baltimore County executives, including Mr. Smith, used to at least give lip-service to regional cooperation and "investing" in the city but Mr. Kamenetz seems to regard it as something of a shotgun wedding — he's going to do the right thing, eventually, but he's feeling just miserable about it.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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