A significant step forward looms for Red Line

 

By Donald C. Fry

Later this month, Maryland transportation officials and advocates are in a position to take a significant step in the development of the Baltimore region’s top-priority transit project – the Red Line.

On November 27, the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board (BTRB) will vote on the Maryland Transit Administration’s request to formally make the proposed 14-mile east-west light rail Red Line from Woodlawn to Bayview eligible for $55.6 million in federal funds for preliminary engineering work on the project.

The BRTB is the local agency in the Baltimore region that is designated to control and administer federal transportation funding in the region. A favorable vote by the board to put the Red Line into its Transportation Improvement Program would effectively make the project formally eligible to access the federal funds made available last June when Congress passed a long-awaited federal transportation funding measure.

The measure – known as “MAP-21,” for Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century – provides $105 billion in federal funding for essential highway and public transportation programs. The funding expires in September 2014.

The Baltimore Regional Transportation Board’s approval would make the Red Line project eligible for $24.8 million in federal funding in FY 2013 and $30.8 million in FY 2014 for the project’s preliminary engineering phase. Among other things, this phase entails documenting that the project meets a complex set of environmental impact requirements.

If all of this sounds very bureaucratic and process-oriented, it is. But it is the crucial next step in advancing the Red Line project and realizing the tremendous economic and quality of life benefits that similar light rail projects have delivered to other regions across the United States.

The Red Line project has drawn some neighborhood opposition along its route. But it is strongly supported by the Greater Baltimore Committee, a legion of transit advocates, as well as elected officials, and would represent the substantial investment in east-west rail transit that the Baltimore region has needed for decades.

Currently, our region does not have a connected rail transit system. We have two north-south rail lines that do not connect with each other. The Red Line would convert the Baltimore region’s public transit hodge-podge into a genuinely integrated rail transit system. It would serve as many as 57,000 passengers daily, create tens of thousands of jobs during and after construction, reduce congestion and benefit the environment by taking commuter cars off the roads.

In October 2011, the Obama Administration announced that the Red Line was among six transportation projects in the nation that are on a federal “fast-track” priority list of transit projects slated for expedited federal permitting and environmental review.

In its 2012 report, the national transportation research group TRIP lists the Red Line among Maryland’s Top Ten most-needed projects to support economic development in Maryland.

Maryland is ultimately seeking federal funding for at least half of the estimated $2.1 billion Red Line project. Maryland is also seeking similar federal funding for the D.C. region’s estimated $1.9 billion Purple Line, planned between New Carrollton and Bethesda.

The DC region’s Purple line, which is also on the TRIP Top Ten list of most-needed Maryland projects, is subject to a similar funding authorization process before the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

The Obama administration’s “fast-track” designation of the Red Line was seen by some as giving the Baltimore project a leg up on the Purple Line project in competing for state and federal funding. But from a practical standpoint, the development of both projects will move forward simultaneously, say state transportation officials.

This, and the federal government’s enactment this year of a long-awaited transportation funding authorization measure, makes it even more important that lawmakers in Annapolis figure out a way to move ahead with significantly-strengthened state transportation funding.

Only by addressing more than a decade of stagnating state funding for roads and transit infrastructure will Maryland be able to ultimately take full advantage of available federal funding now and in the future.

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