Maryland Governor Supports Light Rail for Red and Purple Lines

Both projects were being considered for bus rapid transit service as well.

Yesterday, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D) announced that he would support the use of light rail for new transit projects planned for suburban Washington and inner-city Baltimore. Though not surprising, the governor’s commitment ensures that both corridors will receive the state’s long term support as they’re reviewed by the federal government during the New Starts grants funding process. The choice of light rail over bus rapid transit was both a politically necessary move to apease voters in the state’s two population centers and one that will best serve the transit users in each.

Mr. O’Malley’s dual announcements — in New Carrollton, where the Purple Line will terminate, and in West Baltimore, where the Red Line will head — were the conclusion of a long effort by Marylanders to convince their government to support light rail over bus service. Former Governor Robert Ehrlich (R) had been adamantly in favor of BRT for the Purple Line and had demonstrated little support for the Red Line at all. The state continues to advocate major road construction, symbolized by the destructive and unnecessary Intercounty Connector and planned I-270 expansion. But Mr. O’Malley’s obligation of state support to light rail and his willingness to sacrifice roads funds in favor of transit construction suggests that Maryland may be slowly turning the corner in favor of alternative transportation.

Yet the routes selected and their use of light rail do not come without controversy. Rather, both projects have been lighting rods for local infighting in recent years. The Purple Line, which will run parallel to a popular walking trail and through a number of affluent communities, has been hit with criticism by NIMBYs who would prefer the construction of a less intrusive and less expensive busway to connect Bethesda, Silver Spring, and a number of other northern Washington suburbs.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the Red Line’s route through middle class Canton has raised a number of questions about whether the city’s citizens are more interested in moving about than in keeping certain people out. The neighborhood’s demands for a too-expensive tunnel under their streets have been strident but irrational, stroking fear about the dangers of public transportation in a community whose access to downtown and West Baltimore is quite limited.

To make matters worse, federal cost effectiveness guidelines that determine whether a project will receive support from Washington have required significant cost engineering in Baltimore. Part of the downtown tunnel will be built as only one track, meaning that trains will only be able to run in one direction in that section. This kind of cost reduction strategy is damaging in the long term, and Baltimore should have learned its lesson. When it opened its Central Light Rail line in 1992 and extensions in 1997, it left 9 of the corridor’s 29 miles single-tracked to meet cost guidelines. High ridership required the city to come back and double track the rest of the line more recently — a likely more costly proposition than if the tracks had been added from the beginning.

Even if the state is able to make it past the demands of these community groups and those of federal guidelines, it may not be able to fund both projects. Mr. O’Malley’s commitment suggests that the state will push for light rail along these corridors, but doesn’t indicate that Maryland will do everything necessary to ensure the projects get built. If it wants to demonstrate a commitment to transit, the state has an obligation to find the necessary funds to do so over the next few years.

7 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • The proposed single-track tunnel section on the Red Line is not downtown; it’s underneath Crooks Lane, a narrow street on the very western edge of Baltimore that runs between Edmonson Ave. and I-70. Any single-track tunnel is going to be painfully dumb, but it’s less so in this peripheral of the line.

    Meanwhile, O’Malley seems to have given into the Canton complainers a bit; the Canton section of the line in proposal get about a third of a mile more tunnel than the original 4C alignment that had been floated.

  • DK

    Did you remove the post about Edward Glaeser’s article because you misread it, and jumped on him for it? When I clicked the link, I got a notification that it was not found. Deleting it won’t help your case, and I think you should still comment on it, and explain your error.

    Similar to how LeBron James trying to not let the video of him getting dunked on was available from other sources, the internet holds a record of everything, and I think it’d be best if you say what your error was, and then comment on Glaeser’s conclusion.

  • jon

    its ridiculous that in baltimore each line is built as its own individual line, first it was the metro rail line (green), then the north-south light rail line and now the red line, why they cant design a system that shares portions of the tracks/route with the existing lines is beyond me. i understand this light rail line will not connect into the north-south line and obviously cant connect into the metro rail line. baltimore, if it built a decent transit system, could be one of the great urban lifestyle cities in the US, it has the underlying bones of a great urban city. instead their transit system is dysfunctional in design and operation.

  • DK, sometimes bloggers publish posts before they intend to. It’s common to put posts in the queue to be published at a set time later – for example, this is what happened with my regional rail piece.

    I haven’t seen the post, but my reaction to Glaeser’s piece is that he does his best to avoid using data from real-world HSR lines; his projection of 3 million annual riders between Houston and Dallas is essentially made up, as is his assumption that HSR has a one and a half hour time advantage over air in terms of security, check-in, and getting to the airport.

  • DK –
    Thanks for your point; I made a mistake in pressing publish as soon as I did, and deleted it a second after, because I wasn’t entirely sure about what I had written (and, in fact, I was wrong)– nonetheless, I should have explained myself because I know it showed up in some RSS readers! So, forgive me, and I’ll plan on providing a more substantiated rebuttal to Mr. Glaeser’s piece tomorrow.

  • Sean

    It seems to be pretty obvious that the federal cost effectiveness guidelines for transit projects need to be completely re-written. They basically mandate cheap and subpar transit systems in order to receive federal funding.

  • Mad Park

    @6 – Sean – Yes, thanks to the Bushies and their anti-transit forebears. They all seem to forget that the cheapskate always pays the most.
    @1 A single track tunnel? Do it right from the beginning! The cost of double tracking later will be astronomical.

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