State requests U.S. funds for city transit plan

The state could break ground in five years on a new rail or rapid transit line in Baltimore under a transportation plan sent to Congress yesterday -- a plan that nonetheless calls for twice as much money to be spent on roads as on public transit.

The $800 million requested to build one highway -- the Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County -- is greater than the sum of all mass transit projects sought throughout the state, $662 million. The state pledged to request more transit money when exact project costs can be determined.

"We want to strike a balance between roads, highways and mass transit -- and we believe we have done so," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in announcing what he called a "wish list" of two dozen state transportation projects.

There is no guarantee any of them will be built. The projects first must be included by Congress in its six-year transportation bill in the fall, then compete with hundreds of projects from across the country for federal funding.

The state wants $15 million to plan the Baltimore Region Transit Plan -- what local officials used to call a "rail plan." But Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan wants to take a close look at "bus-rapid transit," huge buses that run in special lanes. Such systems are far less expensive than light rail and subways.

"We ought to consider the fact we might be able to get more bang for our buck -- and maybe do one or two more projects -- if we consider bus-rapid transit instead of light rail," Flanagan said. A rapid bus costs about $1.2 million, while a rail car costs $3 million.

Once funding to plan Baltimore's system is secured, Flanagan expects to seek more money -- he does not know how much -- to start construction of the Red Line, a light rail or rapid bus line from Woodlawn to Fells Point.

While elected officials expressed some wariness over rapid buses and the lane space that would be devoted to them, they were pleased the state is prepared to ask Congress for money to build -- not just plan -- some form of new transit in Baltimore. Exactly what that will be, buses or rail, will be decided in two years.

"I'm glad they reconsidered, and now the battle moves to Washington," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "This is a win for the region and it's a win for Maryland. We need to build on this momentum."

The Ehrlich administration had said that Baltimore's transit plan was not advanced enough in its planning to compete for federal construction money. That sparked an outcry from local officials who did not want to delay a plan they say is key to the city's future.

The administration now says it could seek construction money in about five years. Several congressmen said they would push the governor to do that even sooner, and that they would make the transit plan their top priority. "We're in much better shape than we were one week ago," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat.

"One of the things we urged the governor to do is to allow us to go out there and fight," he said. "And we're going to fight to get this authorized."

The 10.4-mile segment of the Red Line is seen as the first step in building an integrated transit system for Baltimore and its suburbs. The plan calls for six light rail or subway lines to be built over the next 20 to 40 years at a cost of $12 billion.

Flanagan is also considering rapid buses for the Purple Line extension of the Washington Metro system. He is changing the name of the project to the Bi-County Transitway to keep the bus option open and to get beyond the fight over the route in Montgomery County.

Advocates for transit and the environment were relieved yesterday that the state's $2 billion transportation plan includes the possibility of seeking construction money for three major transit projects, but they were dismayed that highways get the lion's share.

"If we took that $800 million [for the ICC] and applied it to transit, think how many cars we could get off the road, how much cleaner the air would be and much better off the Chesapeake Bay would be," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland.

She noted that the plan calls for a bevy of bridges and bypasses to be built across the state, along with a number of new highway interchanges and widening projects. Included is $219 million to widen the Baltimore Beltway's inner loop on the north side and outer loop on the west side.

The request to Congress also calls for $250 million to expand the Maryland Rail Commuter service by buying new train cars and building parking garages. And it seeks $80 million to complete the double-tracking of Baltimore's light rail line.

The Washington suburbs continue to outpace the Baltimore region in transportation funding under the Ehrlich plan. It requests $1.1 billion for projects in Montgomery and Prince George's counties compared with $336 million for Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, excluding the MARC expansion.

But area lawmakers say they should take the blame for that. "We dropped the ball on transit in the Baltimore region," Cardin said. "Washington moved more aggressively than we did. That was not a bias of the state."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore hopes the transit plan will help make up the difference. A member of the House transportation and infrastructure committee, Cummings said he would give "every ounce of power I've got" to secure funding for the plan.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, an outspoken proponent of the transit plan, said she and the transportation secretary have a philosophical difference about priorities -- mass transit or highways -- but she embraces the administration's latest proposal.

"He and I do differ on the mix, but the important thing is on this first important step, the administration listened to those of us who want to have more rail in Baltimore City," McIntosh said.

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