May 16, 2018

Politicians: Start acting like you really want a Red Line

Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake set the tone for lack of effort to get the light rail Red Line built, and other politicians have fallen in line ever since. She promised that her staff would develop a viable alternative plan, and then she did absolutely nothing except continue to bash Governor Hogan for cancelling the $3 billion project.

Since then, much political rhetoric has been expended for the Red Line, but no action to back it up - right up to the current gubernatorial campaign to try to prevent Hogan's re-election in November.
The Red Line should go through this area in the median of the "Highway to Nowhere" near Fremont Avenue,
 as it was originally planned until it was relocated into a more lengthy downtown tunnel. 
Heritage Crossing is in the background and could be expanded here. (Metro West is to the right of the photo.)

All of this started well before Hogan was first elected or almost anyone had even ever heard of him. The majority of the Red Line (west of Fells Point) was originally slated for completion by 2014. But despite talk of urgency, Governor O'Malley kept delaying a full funding plan while the project kept getting more expensive.

In the city is was business as usual. On the east side of town, the big new glitzy waterfront development projects kept the proposed Red Line stations as far away as possible. On the west side, the city refused to consider closing the "Highway to Nowhere" to create transit oriented development sites.

Working class residents on Fremont Avenue in West Baltimore (not upper income east siders) sued the state for its late decision to expand the downtown tunnel to an alignment directly under the fronts of their houses at its shallowest point, instead of the previous "locally preferred alternative" which kept it in the highway median (see photo above) all the way to MLK Boulevard.

Kevin Kamenetz' Red Line legacy

The first official discord from politicians occurred when both Baltimore City and County balked at contributing to the Red Line's ever-increasing cost. The late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz took the heat for this, but the Baltimore mayor reaped the lion's share of the benefit, in an agreement with O'Malley that the 10% local contributions would go mostly for items that weren't even included in the Red Line's costs anyway. That left the State to pay close to the full tab, including cost overruns, outside of a hoped-for $900 million federal contribution for which the state never completed its application, and thus was never committed by the Obama or Trump Administrations.

Contrast this with the DC-suburban Purple Line, which is now signed, sealed and under construction. The entire Purple Line funding package was spelled out, then approved by Trump's Department of Transportation, including a long-term state commitment to pay upwards of $5 Billion to a "public-private partnership", and with Prince George's and Montgomery Counties paying their full shares with real cash in accordance with Federal Transit Administration regulations from the Obama Administration.

Kevin Kamenetz was the first major politician to foresee that the Red Line was going to be difficult if not impossible to build all at once, so he wanted Baltimore County's portion to the west to be built in an "early phase" as a condition of its funding contribution (Sun Editorial, July 15, 2014.) This was well before Larry Hogan made the cancellation of the Red Line an issue in his surprise upset win for governor. The Sun pilloried Kamenetz for this, but Kamenetz won the funding share battle with then-Governor O'Malley.

On the other hand, planners asserted that the $3 billion Red Line plan could not be built in phases, because the downtown tunnel dominated the costs and had to be built all at once. This is one of the reasons Hogan's Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn called the tunnel a "fatal flaw".

Christopher Muldor's recent call to action in The Sun

Fast forward four years and Kamentz is running for governor. Then on the same day Kamenetz had his sudden fatal heart attack, May 10, an op-ed in The Sun written by freelance writer Christopher Muldor declared that now was the time for politicians to focus on the areas that can really benefit from the Red Line in predominantly low-income West Baltimore, and not on the overly expensive tunnel under the mostly higher income downtown and east waterfront areas. Muldor stated:"There is overwhelming evidence that car-owning residents of affluent areas in Baltimore generally shun mass transit." That also could be said for the powerful developers who are trying to lure affluent people to these areas as well.

Inner city portion of RightRail Plan, with Red Line terminating at Lexington Market Hub.
Orange, Purple and Gray Lines would be streetcars. Green Line would be Metro extension to east.

Muldor then cited the Right Rail Coalition's plan for the Red Line as a potential solution, of which I was an author. He also cited a "long time transit planner" as being critical of the "disjointed" character of the previously planned Red Line within the transit system. This sounds like Muldor is referring to someone who wants to remain anonymous for professional reasons, and while such people certainly exist, but I'll offer my concurrence on the record (Me, Gerald Neily, transportation planner for the City Planning Department for 19 years.)

Muldor concludes his article by challenging Baltimore Mayor Pugh to take action, reminding everyone that she "supports mass transit and has emphasized her ability to work with Maryland's Republican Governor."

The Red Line in the governor's race

So this is where politics really comes in. It's the art of opposing someone one day and then working with them the next, even if they're from the opposing party. Through all this, the Red Line has remained an issue.

One of the remaining major Democratic candidates for governor is Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, whose county was involved in the funding negotiations to build the somewhat less expensive and less complex Purple Line. But he should know that Baltimore City is too poor to make the same kind of financial concessions to get the Red Line built that more affluent PG and especially Montgomery County were able to put together on the Purple Line.

Another candidate is Ben Jealous, who was national CEO of the NAACP not long before it filed a civil rights complaint on the Red Line cancellation. While the complaint cited discrimination against low income African-Americans, it specifically called for alternative projects to be pursued, rather than trying to revive the cancelled project.

The NAACP thus apparently realizes that it was the very expensive portion of the Red Line that ran through the more affluent mostly white areas that was the culprit of the cancellation. Therefore, coming up with a more equitable project would make more economic sense as well. It would thus follow that building the Red Line is not the very best way to allocate upwards of $3 Billion to help poor and disadvantaged people. While the NAACP case was ultimately dismissed, its arguments may still be applicable in the court of public opinion that is the upcoming election.

But the current Red Line inaction by Baker, Jealous and other candidates benefits Governor Hogan, who thus doesn't have to worry about playing defense as incumbents generally do. This plays into the strength that political pundits have attributed to him - being able to skillfully appropriate issues from others and make them his own. It would indeed be ironic if the man who has been excoriated for killing the Red Line ultimately became the man who saved it.

And it may actually be a fairly simple act to pull off such a political feat. Hogan had a trial run with his BaltimoreLink bus system overhaul. That one just about fell in his lap, being the follow-up to Governor O'Malley's BNIP (Bus Network Improvement Program) plan which failed miserably and was then quietly cancelled. But buses, important as they are, don't have much power to ignite a lot of enthusiasm, and trying to fix the system is a thankless job. In contrast, the Red Line retains some glamour for being bright and new even when the rest of the bus and rail transit system is not.

Eight-point challenge to Mayor Pugh

Mayor Pugh could be in the catbird's seat through all this. Despite Baltimore's numerous woes, one thing she is perceived as doing well is working with people of all persuasions, both Democrats and Republicans. She can make the planning of a new revised Red Line her issue, and thus invite support from all sides.

And compared to the original dead $3 billion-plus Red Line, this revised Red Line could offer numerous "easy winners" (cue Scott Joplin's ragtime classic). Even as few as one relatively inexpensive Red Line-related project could be a major victory. All winning streaks start with a single game, and this one could keep going long enough with various rail branches and extensions to make the $3 billion original look like a tinkertoy (which sadly is really what it was).

A major key to this is true coordination between a revised Red Line and its surrounding transit oriented development, something about which Baltimore has been tragically remiss since the first eight miles of the Metro were completed in the early 1980s, with a trail of failures including Howard/Lexington, State Center and Westport.

So here is a list of eight smaller Red Line "easy winners" that Mayor Pugh could get behind, individually and collectively, and promote to all prospective governors. The list is development-oriented, because development is unquestionably the city's responsibility and (unlike transit) has consistently remained a top priority over the years.

1. Lexington Market Transit Hub - This would finally create a physical connection between the Metro Station under Eutaw Street and the light rail station on Howard Street, using the elegant but vacant Hutzler's Department Street building in between. It would also serve buses, and would accommodate a downtown terminus for the Red Line on or under Saratoga Street.

2. Metro West - This vacant office complex of over a million square feet was originally supposed to be served by the Red Line on MLK Boulevard, but the proposed downtown tunnel had to be relocated away from this area (also connecting the University of Maryland campus). A revised Red Line plan along Saratoga Street would provide an even better connection, and a powerful incentive to make the site's redevelopment oriented to transit, something that the developer's early sketches have not done.

3. Heritage Crossing expansion - Ever since Mayor Schmoke's Administration, the city's flagship mixed-income redevelopment area has been considered for expansion into what is now the impenetrable "Highway to Nowhere". This could be greatly stimulated by a revamped Red Line (see top photo.).

4. Harlem Park - This is where the "Highway to Nowhere" is in a wide ditch, and thus could be replaced by truly innovative and unique development opportunities in a traffic-conflict free environment.

West Baltimore MARC Station - Ice House in the upper left, bus hub built as part of BaltimoreLink
 to the right, and "Highway to Nowhere" in the background, beyond the parking.

5. West Baltimore MARC Station - The adjacent "Ice House" was one of the few sites for a specific transit oriented development attributable to the defunct Red Line plan. More recently, the plan for a new Amtrak tunnel under West Baltimore has included plans for a whole new and greatly improved MARC station on relocated tracks. The revised Red Line plan needs to be coordinated closely with the Amtrak plan, so it is stronger and probably better to emphasize new development replacing the "Highway to Nowhere"and parking lots, along with a parking garage replacing the lots.

6. Uplands - This stalled but attractive mixed-income development has thus far been totally disoriented from the proposed Edmondson Village Red Line station, even though it was supposed to be completed well before the Red Line. Reigniting real momentum for the Red Line, if not its actual construction, could reignite this project as well. Increased density is greatly needed near the station on Edmondson Avenue.

7. Perkins Point - The redevelopment of the Perkins Homes public housing site has recently re-emerged in concert with the Old Town project to the north, to create by far the greatest mixed income development opportunity in Baltimore history. Bank Street, at its southern border with Fells Point and near Harbor East, offers a "blank slate" where a streetcar line could be built and tied into the earlier surface Red Line plan through the Inner Harbor and West Downtown which was in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The entire revised Red Line should be made "streetcar compatible" to serve as the trunk for new streetcar lines that branch out in all directions.

Proposed Red Line streetcar spur with new development, just north of Carroll Park, with the
B&O Museum Mount Clare Roundhouse in the background, as envisioned by Marc Szarkowski.

8. Mount Clare / Montgomery Park - A west side complement to the Perkins Point streetcar line would proceed beyond the Inner Harbor into the Mount Clare "First Mile" corridor of the B&O Railroad, one of the city's major historic treasures, where it would define a true urban development edge along the desolate north side of Carroll Park. It would then continue to the city's largest office building, the 1.3 million square foot Montgomery Park.

Building anything from this list would demonstrate the city's case to finally build a Red Line to fulfill its larger ambitions. And any of these projects could be supported by building just a very small initial phase of a complete Red Line, which could be built relatively inexpensively and quickly.


  1. As a footnote, I thought it would be helpful to post the most consistent possible cost values I can for comparison between the Red and Purple Lines. This is easier said than done. There have been all kinds of numbers thrown about for both projects, and MDOT hasn't made it easy either - I can't even find a solid cost number anywhere on their website and they took down their Red Line website years ago.

    The most egregiously misleading cost comparison I've seen is from a Sun Editorial from Feb 9, 2018: $2.9 Billion for the Red Line versus $5.6 Billion for the Purple Line. The Purple Line number is the nominal value of the "public-private partnership" (3P) which is a totally different thing from the project cost. There's never been anything near a 3P plan or contract for the Red Line, so such a comparison is totally bogus. The 3P includes many more costs such as expected operating and maintenance costs, but also leaves out many costs like the contributions from governments at all levels. Typical Baltimore Sun.

    For the Red Line, the best cost number I've seen was from an FTA status report in 2014: $2.99 Billion. But that number is obviously suspicious. Any cost that ends in .99 would appear to be marketed to a price point, like a supermarket would do, rather than striving for accurate accounting. Costs were steadily going up, and there was no reason to believe that would stop at $2.99 Billion, since the Red Line had almost 5 miles of tunneling versus almost none for the Purple Line.

    For the Purple Line, the most comparable number would be from the FTA "Record of Decision", somewhat earlier in 2014 (March 20), which was $2.371 Billion. But since that was over four years and much engineering ago, it also has changed. At one point, MDOT lauded that they had reduced the cost to around $2 Billion, but once the 3P was signed, that claim was superceded.

    The best cost number for the Purple Line is probably from the Full Funding Grant Agreement - $2.407 Billion dated August 22, 2017. This was posted independently on the SCRIBD website -

    It's probably coincidence that it's so close to the 2014 ROD cost, but so be it.

    Bottom Line: Purple Line = $2.4 Billion versus Red Line = $3 Billion-plus.

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