Center Maryland: Funding the Red Line, facing the future

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on August 29.

By Donald C. Fry

The commitments made this week by elected leaders in Baltimore City and Baltimore County to contribute $230 million and $50 million respectively toward construction of the light rail Red Line closes the funding circle for the region’s most important transit project in decades.

These commitments by Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz enable the state to meet the key local funding requirement that puts the 14.1-mile east-west Red Line from Woodlawn to Bayview at the front of the queue to receive $900 million from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program.

That’s the federal government’s primary financial resource for supporting major transit capital investments at the state and local levels. The Red Line is one of only seven projects across the nation included in President Obama’s FY 2015 budget for New Starts funding.

The Red Line will have an extraordinarily positive impact on the region. It will transform the Baltimore area’s fragmented north-south rail transit lines that do not connect with each other into an integrated, connected system that offers commuters and residents meaningful rail transit alternatives to driving. It also will provide easy transit access to thousands of jobs in the region.

It will put Baltimore among a group of cities such as Boston, Portland and Seattle where transit has reinvigorated the economies of those regions.

These city and county funding commitments also signal recognition by two leading local elected officials in the region that the funding rules are changing for priority infrastructure projects.

Such collaboration between the city and county likely provides a glimpse of the future. It’s the type of regional teamwork on transportation and other issues that must be addressed to keep our region competitive for economic growth and job creation.

Traffic congestion, for example, will be a continuing challenge for the Baltimore region, where highway congestion ranks second worst among U.S. regions with up to 3 million residents, according to the widely-recognized Texas Transportation Institute.

Local governments can expect to experience increasing pressure to collaborate to address infrastructure funding challenges for which they have traditionally relied upon state and federal governments to address.

Last year Maryland lawmakers acknowledged as much when they formed the Local and Regional Transportation Funding Task Force to study and recommend options for generating regional funding for transportation infrastructure.

A menu of options identified in the task force’s December 2013 report to lawmakers ranged from the creation of regional transportation authorities to granting the state’s jurisdictions revenue-raising authority that could include local vehicle registration fees, dedicating a portion of the local income tax to transportation, and other revenue-raising options related to real estate fees.

There was a time decades ago when local elected leaders could rely on federal funding for up to 80 percent of the cost of a major transit project such as the Red Line, with the state kicking in the rest. But that was then, this is now.

During the last 10-plus years the federal government has made transit and highway funding a much more competitive process and has come to expect local financial involvement.

Local governments are not accustomed to that. For years they never had to worry about funding for transportation projects and relied on just federal and state dollars. Rawlings-Blake and Kamenetz are to be congratulated for quickly grasping that the transportation funding landscape is changing and for seizing the opportunity to move a critical transportation initiative forward.

Local governments can expect more of the same, and not just relating to transportation. They will be increasingly challenged to collaborate regionally on a broad spectrum of issues, according to experts.

Regions across the country are becoming the sources of innovative government problem-solving in the face of political and fiscal gridlock at the national level and fiscal tightening by state governments, write Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley in a new book, “The Metropolitan Revolution.”

American cities and regions that have relied on, and are still looking for, increased federal and state assistance need to adjust to a new reality, Bradley recently told participants at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Chesapeake Conference of CEOs.

“The cavalry is not coming,” Bradley said.

For local elected leaders around the state, a new day is emerging. If they adhere to the traditional method of waiting for another government body to step up and save them from addressing challenging problems, they would do well to ignore the past and to cast their eyes straight into the mirror for solutions.

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

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