Center Maryland: Red Line voices of ‘yes’ need to be heard

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Editor’s note:  The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on August 3.

By Donald C. Fry

It’s a fact of life these days that government planners for any major transportation project must negotiate a gauntlet of public opinion and community feedback from advocates and detractors alike.

Baltimore’s Red Line is no different.

As state transit planners wrap up the engineering stage for Baltimore’s 14.1-mile Red Line project from Woodlawn to Bayview and are on the verge of gaining final approval of $900 million in federal funding toward the project, a small but vocal group of  detractors persists in engaging in that favorite Baltimore pastime – second guessing.

A handful of critics gains media attention by ranting about the Red Line – even in the final stages of the project’s planning and financing – and calling for the Maryland Transit Administration to hit the “pause” button on the project.

Detractors say a key issue is the project’s cost, for which estimates have increased from $1.6 billion in 2007 to more than $2.6 billion in estimated 2018 dollars, mostly due to the effects of inflation on transit construction costs but also attributable to some opportunities planners saw to improve the quality of the project.

How would Red Line detractors reduce the project’s cost?  Basically, they propose eliminating the Red Line’s tunnel under downtown Baltimore, building a network of streetcar lines instead, connecting a west-side line to the current Metro subway at Lexington Market and extending the heavy-rail metro from Johns Hopkins to Bayview.

Red Line detractors estimate that their alternative plan will save $795 million, though they offer no details on how they arrive at that figure for a brainstorm that, among other things, would extend an expensive heavy rail line and include a tunnel.

Yet, in advancing their alternative proposal, detractors are fond of portraying Maryland Transit Administration planners as keystone cops and snipe at elements of the Red Line plan that is the result of a decade of work meticulously scrutinizing details, gathering extensive community input and considering all of the options, including the alternatives that detractors persist in suggesting.

On the subject of cost, it’s worth noting that the Red Line’s projected cost is well within the parameters of other major transit projects, including Washington, DC-area’s 11.7-mile Metro Silver Line Phase One that opened last week, which cost $2.9 billion.

Meanwhile, Baltimore’s Red Line is poised to gain final federal funding approval as the MTA completes the required state and local funding elements. Our region is nearing the construction phase of a rail transit project that is widely supported by employers, elected leaders, transit advocates and the city’s communities that would benefit from exponentially improved rail transit in Greater Baltimore.

Everyone has a right to an opinion. But a handful of naysayers would have the state compromise the Red Line plans, thereby fatally delaying a rail transit project that would transform our region’s existing transit hodge-podge into a genuinely connected and integrated transit system of infinitely more value to residents in the region seeking better mobility options.

Detractors are advocating precisely the “build it on the cheap” approach that over the last 40 years has resulted in that existing hodge-podge.

To borrow from a remark by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at the opening of the Silver Line in the DC area, the Red Line presents an opportunity for Baltimore’s “voices of  yes” to resonate louder than the “voices of no.”

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland. 

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