Don Fry Commentary: For Red, Purple Lines, what does it mean to be in Obama’s budget?

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Maryland transit advocates are heartened to see that the budget proposed by President Obama earlier this week includes $100 million in capital funding for the planned 14.1-mile light rail Red Line from Woodlawn to Bayview and $100 million for the planned 16-mile Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

What, specifically, does this mean for Maryland?

Most advocates and state officials applaud this as validation of impending federal funding support for these transit projects, while some skeptics voice caution.

The budget recommendation “is an important initial step to keep the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) on track to finalize a public-private partnership agreement for the Purple Line and to allow MTA to advertise construction contracts for the Red Line,” Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Smith said in a news release.

As Smith indicated, for the Baltimore region this is viewed as strong evidence that Federal Transit Administration (FTA) officials will recommend a full-funding agreement to Congress for approximately $900 million in federal funding for the $2.6 billion Red Line project. Maryland Transit Administration officials are currently working with federal officials to gain full-funding approval this year.

Nevertheless, skeptics contend that the passage of the Obama Administration budget, in which the Red Line and Purple Line funding is imbedded, is far from certain. They contend that this budget – which exceeds spending limits set by Congress and seeks passage of controversial proposals to increase taxes on high income earners – is going nowhere.

The Republican House has dismissed this budget as a political document for use by the President for his remaining years in office.

So, for the Red Line and Purple Line funding, which is it? Is it just politics? Or does it mean the actual positioning of these projects for execution, in the near term, for the all-important full-funding grant agreement?

I suggest it’s a little of both. Nothing coming out of Washington is free from politics, but policy statements do emerge in budget submissions. And the inclusion of Red Line and Purple Line funding is a very strong policy statement.

It’s also worth noting that budgeted capital funding for transportation infrastructure has rarely, if ever, been cut in a Congressional fight over federal operational spending.

The FTA has clearly indicated that the Red Line and the Purple Line are firmly positioned for federal full-funding agreements. And over the years Congress has always honored these commitments.

During the past 10 years, both projects have undergone a thorough vetting process by the federal government as required in the Congressionally-mandated New Starts process. The Red Line and the Purple Line are two of only seven new projects across the country recommended by the FTA for full-funding grant agreements in this year’s proposed budget.

Among other things, this serves to deflate some skeptics’ contention that Maryland will never be able to keep two major transit projects in the mix for federal funding.

Political posturing and inside the-Beltway speculation aside, this is another incremental step to celebrate. Major capital infrastructure projects are a multi-year process, and incremental success is worthy of celebration. It’s not yet time to declare victory in our state’s quest to gain federal funding for the Red and Purple lines, but it’s better to be on the list for funding than not on the list.

For Baltimore’s Red Line, this validates its financial and ridership projections and clears the way for the state to finish negotiating a full-funding agreement defining the project’s cost, schedule and conditions for MTA’s management of the project.

The Red Line’s presence on the priority list demonstrates that federal officials recognize the critical need for this project.

It’s the most effective transit proposal for our region in more than a generation and has long been the top transit priority advocated by business and civic leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee and by the overwhelming majority of the region’s transit advocates.

It’s the east-west connection that will finally make the entire Baltimore rail transit system greater than the sum of its parts.

In transforming transit options in the region, it will greatly enhance mobility and serve as a catalyst for economic growth.

It will bring Baltimore into the company of such cities as Boston, Portland, and Seattle where transit provides efficient and convenient access to jobs, education and entertainment to thousands of residents through systems that use a combination of surface transit and tunneling.

Last year’s passage of increased transportation funding by Maryland lawmakers demonstrated our state’s commitment to transportation infrastructure. Hopefully Congress will find a way to do the same.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland. This column originally appeared in Center Maryland on Friday, March 7.

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