Red Line: a transit opportunity decades in the making

 

By Donald C. Fry

The Baltimore region has been waiting for decades for a comprehensive, connected rail transit system.

Today, the region is on the verge of achieving a system that was envisioned as long ago as 1968, when the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual report contained a map of a proposed regional rail transit plan. The map, which is similar to the most recent map of our region’s rail transit plan, includes a line from the Catonsville-Woodlawn area through downtown to southeast Baltimore.

In effect, it’s the proposed light rail Red Line – as envisioned more than four decades ago as the key east-west element connecting with north-south lines to make a true rail transit system.

t’s been a long wait, but our city and region are poised to finally attain a genuine transit system that a resident could board in Woodlawn or Highlandtown and conveniently get downtown or to Owings Mills, BWI, Timonium or to more than 30 other locales north, south, east or west without driving a car or riding anything gas-driven.

How come? Because, despite a recent smattering of speculative, shoot-from-the-hip commentary in some media inferring the Red Line project will be derailed, the fact is the Red Line is poised to be locked in for $1 billion in federal funding that, combined with more than $1 billion in matching state funding over the next six years, will enable construction to begin as soon as 2015.

Among transit projects in the United States, the Red Line is one of the highest-rated by the Federal Transit Administration for funding, Henry Kay, executive director for transit development at the Maryland Transit Administration, told a group of advocates who met last week at the Greater Baltimore Committee.

In February 2013, the Federal Transit Administration issued a “Record of Decision” signaling the agency’s approval of the project for continuing support. Within eight months, Maryland transportation planners will file a full-funding grant agreement request substantiating the state’s funding commitment and detailing specific construction plans. If the state’s request is in order, federal funding could be fully approved in mid-2014. Construction could start a year later and the Red Line could open as early as 2021.

It’s worth noting proposed federal funding for the Purple Line project in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties is on a similar track for federal funding. Although Baltimore’s Red Line is slightly farther along in the process, both are positioned to receive federal funding.

The Red Line’s benefits to the Baltimore region will be substantial. Plans call for 19 stations along the 14.1-mile stretch between Woodlawn and Bayview, with connections to MARC commuter rail at Bayview, Camden Yards and in West Baltimore. Sleek, modern trains will operate on dedicated tracks separate from traffic on the surface portions of the line. Tracks will tunnel under Cooks Lane in West Baltimore and under downtown, Inner Harbor East and Fells Point. Underground stations will be at Poppleton, Howard Street, the Inner Harbor, Harbor East, and Fells Point.

The Red Line passenger volume is forecast to average more than 48,000 weekday trips in its first year, increasing to 54,500 average weekday trips by 2035.

It will offer speedy, dependable transit service with easy connections to other elements of the Baltimore transit network, including the Metro subway, north-south light rail, MARC commuter rail and Amtrak northeast rail.

It will serve major employment centers including the Social Security Administration, Medicare and Medicaid Services in Woodlawn, and the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Campus as well as Baltimore’s central business district. The Red Line’s service corridor includes 7,500 businesses employing 192,000. Transit-oriented development along the line could generate 33,000 new jobs, according to state estimates.

Current auto commuters who use the Red Line will reduce their travel costs, eliminate 67,000 vehicle miles traveled per day from the region’s roads, and significantly reduce hydrocarbon emissions, the state estimates.

Meanwhile, the Red Line’s connections to virtually all other major rail transit serving the Baltimore region, should significantly improve ridership and value on the rest of the system as well, as has occurred with transit improvements elsewhere, Kay said.

The final push to garner the looming federal funding for the Red Line will require the funding commitment from the state, some commitment from local jurisdictions it serves, and a strong show of support from business leaders and the many communities to be served by the fully-connected transit system.

In the Baltimore region, we’ve been waiting decades for this transforming east-west rail transit resource. There are no other viable options on the table besides the Red Line. This is Baltimore’s only true opportunity for an integrated transit system.

Governor O’Malley and the MTA have delivered the planning and engineering for a first-rate project. The Red Line will – finally – transform the region’s current fragmented transit hodgepodge into a comprehensive, connected rail transit system that will exponentially expand mobility options for our workforce and residents.

The MTA has put in the work to position the Red Line for a billion dollars in federal funding.

It’s time for transit advocates, the business community, our congressional delegation and community leaders to rally around the Red Line and to voice, in loud and clear terms, our support for this project that will greatly benefit both the economy and quality of life in the Baltimore region.

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