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.