Md. Seeks U.S. Aid for D.C. Area and Baltimore Transit Projects

Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration is seeking federal funding for both a Purple Line in the Washington suburbs and a Red Line in Baltimore.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration is seeking federal funding for both a Purple Line in the Washington suburbs and a Red Line in Baltimore. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

Maryland governors abide by a cardinal rule: Whenever possible, avoid choosing between the voter-rich political rivals of Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) appears to be heeding that rule in pursuing federal transit money to build both a 14-mile Red Line through Baltimore and a 16-mile Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George's counties. State officials say the governor is expected to announce the state's plans -- the routes and choice of light-rail or bus rapid transit -- for both projects next month and to begin seeking federal money this fall.

But many transit experts say good timing could help O'Malley's please-all approach prove just as pragmatic as political. In recent years, the competition for federal transit money has been so fierce and the process so cumbersome that a state was considered fortunate to clinch money for one rail or bus line, let alone two. Now, calls to increase transit funding, both from the Obama administration and key lawmakers on Capitol Hill, are raising hopes in Maryland and across the country that affording two -- or more -- transit projects at once could be more doable than ever.

"Normally, picking between a Baltimore and Washington project is a political briar patch," said Mike Morrill, a political consultant who was an aide to Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D). "But this may be a time, with the [Obama] administration's focus on public transit, when we can make both regions winners."

Donald C. Fry, president and chief executive of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group advocating for the Red Line, said O'Malley's approach shouldn't hurt either project's chances. Baltimore already has subway and light-rail lines; the Red Line would run east-west between the city and suburbs.

"I don't know that it's being political as much as being realistic," Fry said. "There's been a lack of investment in transportation at the federal and state level for decades. As a result, we have this need for multiple lines. I think that's what is driving this."

Both projects have been studied as light-rail and rapid bus systems, but political support in both regions is strongly behind light rail, in part because some say train tracks spur more development.

Maryland officials said they must seek funding for both now because meeting complicated federal planning requirements can easily take five years. Moving ahead while friends are in high places could help. The state's former transportation secretary, John D. Porcari, who championed both a Red and Purple line, is now deputy U.S. transportation secretary.

"Both Baltimore and the Washington area are ready for more transit," said Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, Maryland's acting transportation secretary. "We've certainly heard nothing from the [Federal Transit Administration] to say we shouldn't move forward with two at the same time."

FTA spokesman Paul Griffo said it's "not uncommon" for states to get more than one transit project funded at a time. Recently, Virginia received money for the Dulles rail extension and a Norfolk transit project, and New York, Colorado and Utah have also been successful.

"If two projects satisfy federal criteria and they have a lot of support, there's no reason that they couldn't both receive federal funding at the same time," Griffo said.

But Maryland officials aren't shopping for rail cars anytime soon. The competition for money is still tough, and Congress is debating where additional transportation money would come from. Nationwide, more than 100 transit projects are being planned, Griffo said. Out of the two dozen or so that compete for federal money every year, he said, typically two to five move ahead.

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