Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous says that if he is elected governor in November, he'll work to revive Baltimore's Red Line.
That might be more than anyone can deliver.
When Republican Gov. Larry Hogan withdrew the state’s support for the $3 billion east-west light rail line after entering office in 2015, he didn’t just kill the project. He drove a figurative spike through its heart — giving up federal funding, and spending the state’s portion on other transportation priorities — making it difficult for any future governor to resurrect it.
All of the Democrats who ran for governor in the June 26 primary decried Hogan’s decision. Most promised to find a way to bring back the Woodlawn-to-Bayview project. And since emerging victorious, Jealous has kept the dream alive.
"The Red Line represented a generational opportunity to transform and grow the Baltimore region's economy, which makes it imperative we at least try to revive this project, or put in place something else just as transformative,” the former NAACP leader said.
He said he would work with community leaders and the Maryland congressional delegation to explore reviving the Red Line or consider other transit options.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the Hogan campaign, said the governor’s reasons for scuttling the Red Line were sound.
"The Red Line didn't move forward for the same reasons [Democratic] former Governor [Martin] O’Malley didn’t move forward with it,” Mayer said. “It was poorly designed, didn’t connect to existing transit and was simply unaffordable, with at least a billion dollar tunnel running through the heart of the city.
“Ben Jealous’ pie-in-the-sky proposals represent the same empty and unaffordable promises typical politicians make to win votes and not much else."
The Red Line project has its roots in a 2002 master rail plan for the Baltimore region developed under Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening. After years of studies and public meetings, O’Malley chose a plan for a 14.4-mile light rail line in 2009.
By 2014, the Red Line looked ready to move into the construction phase within two years.
O’Malley had persuaded the General Assembly to enact the first increase in the state gas tax in two decades, replenishing the depleted Transportation Trust Fund and providing new revenue to cover the state’s share.
With a push from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, then the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Federal Transit Administration had given preliminary approval to a $900 million federal contribution.
Then Hogan, who ran as a mass transit skeptic, won his upset victory that fall. He announced his decision six months after his inauguration: Yes to the Purple Line, in the Washington suburbs. No to the Red Line, which he called a boondoggle.
Hogan spent the money the state saved by not building the Red Line on other projects, mostly roads, around Maryland. His administration declined the federal government’s $900 million contribution.
“This $900 million has not been sitting around in an account somewhere waiting for us ever since,” said Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat who has taken the lead on city transportation issues. “The setback to Central Maryland economic development that Governor Hogan caused by sending that money back cannot be overstated.”
If Jealous were to win, he would be working with a different Washington than O’Malley did. Mikulski is retired, and Republicans control appropriations in Congress. Donald J. Trump has replaced Barack Obama as president.
The Trump administration has shown less interest in local transit than the Obama administration.
“The Trump administration has said they’d like to see the states or local governments pick up a bigger share of transit,” said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. The organization was a vocal backer of the Red Line.
Replacing the state side of the funding, representing two-thirds of the total cost, would be no less daunting. With inflation, a new Red Line would almost certainly cost far more than $3 billion.
Lierman, who supports Jealous, said it would be difficult to build a coalition to raise transportation revenue for a revival of the project. She said many Baltimore legislators felt burned after voting for the tax increase only to see the money used for projects in districts represented by lawmakers who opposed it.
Hogan’s decision to move forward with the Purple Line also complicates any effort to raise revenue for a mass transit project in Baltimore. Under O’Malley, the two projects moved forward in tandem with the support from lawmakers from the Baltimore and Washington regions. Now Washington-area lawmakers have less incentive to support tax increases.
Even if the money problems could be solved, other hurdles facing a revived Red Line — or anything like it — would be formidable.
The Federal Transit Authority rescinded its Record of Decision on the project in 2015. That means basic decisions about the line — whether it should be rail or dedicated bus lanes, the route, station placement, tunneling — would be reopened.
Some plans could be taken out of storage, but other elements, such as studies of potential ridership, would have be be redone.
The same dilemmas that faced the old Red Line plan would remain. Do you tunnel under downtown, at a cost of more than $1 billion? Or do you put up with the slower travel times and the traffic disruption that would result from running it on the surface? Do you save costs by switching to a bus rapid transit plan that garnered little community support?
Jealous says he’s open to suggestions, including bus rapid transit or the expansion of MARC service.
“I believe if we take an all-of-the-above approach, we can better utilize many of the resources we already have to grow our economy and raise wages,” he said.
Hogan aides point to his administration’s investments in Baltimore-area transportation projects such as his $461 million project to widen the Baltimore Beltway and a $27 million revitalization of the North Avenue corridor.
“Under Governor Hogan, Baltimore City and the greater Baltimore region are seeing responsible investments actually come to fruition that are improving commute times and quality of life,” Mayer said.
Jealous spokeswoman Jerusalem Demsas said the candidate is a realist: He doesn’t expect any federal money to restart the Red Line as long as Trump is president.
“He’s not naive,” she said. “He understands there were hundreds of millions of dollars lost at the federal level and it’s going to be very difficult to get those back.”
Fry said he’s pleased it’s a campaign issue.
“We’re just glad to know there’s at least discussion of a transformative mass transit project again,” he said.