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As Wes Moore seeks to revive Baltimore’s Red Line, project faces uncertain path

The fresh attempts to bring back the Red Line show the complexities of getting the federal government onboard a second time

Those who use the public bus system from the downtown areas of Baltimore are disproportionately African American. After the 14-mile Red Line light-rail project was canceled, many people are stuck riding buses that get mired in traffic. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Maryland Gov.-elect Wes Moore has repeatedly promised to breathe new life into Baltimore’s Red Line, an east-west transit project killed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who called it a “wasteful boondoggle.”

But Moore’s (D) transition team acknowledges that basic questions remain about what the reborn project could look like — including whether it will be light-rail — underscoring the challenges facing the incoming governor as he tries to carry out what he calls a core priority.

In 2013, federal transportation officials approved a key environmental documentation for a 14-mile, 19-station light-rail line stretching from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services headquarters in Baltimore County to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore City.

That crucial step by the Federal Transit Administration set up Maryland to receive $900 million in federal money and would have allowed state officials to push ahead with engineering and construction. Instead, the Hogan administration asked the FTA to undo that decision in 2015.

Moore is trying to put the pieces back together, with spokesman Carter Elliott saying the governor will “explore every avenue available to revive this project and work to ensure the decades worth of preparation that was canceled in 2015 won’t go to waste.” The fresh attempts at revival show the complexities of getting the federal government onboard a second time, even as Washington doles out billions to transit projects that align with the administration’s priorities.

Elliott would not say whether the project Moore is seeking to restore will be the same 14-mile line that received environmental approval or whether the project will end up being a light-rail line at all. Maryland transportation officials are exploring a mix of bus rapid transit and rail options as part of a broader East-West Transit Corridor study covering Baltimore City, as well as Baltimore and Howard counties.

“We’re going to start with the plan that has already been previously approved. But if that’s not meeting the needs of the community, at the end of the day, we’re going to have to go back and look at it again,” Elliott said. “That last project was approved a decade ago. We really have to go back and assess the needs of the community and see if that previous project is still up to par.”

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Transit advocates who have struggled over the vision, location and financing of this and other major infrastructure projects warned that shifting away from a proposal that netted federal environmental approval could end up undermining the project.

“They ought not open the whole can of worms back up, because that is what will delay things for years,” said Ben Ross, chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, which helped to repel efforts to kill the Purple Line light-rail project in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. “There really is a consensus in Baltimore to build that project, and what should be done is simply to look at what has changed that would affect that project.”

Federal rules require reevaluating a project’s environmental documentation if it lays dormant for years after securing key approvals. Shifting the project’s scope could add complications in getting another green light from Washington.

The FTA said in a statement that Maryland can reopen its application for federal funding “at any time,” but the project won’t jump to the front of the line. Instead, it would enter the first phase of assessments and go through a review process to obtain a favorable rating.

That can take years, in some cases, possibly leaving Red Line supporters such as Moore balancing community engagement and striking at a time when Washington looks favorably on such projects. Last year’s infrastructure bill is making the biggest transit investment in the nation’s history, while the Biden administration has cited the equity and environmental benefits of building transit projects in urban communities.

If the newly submitted Red Line project is similar to the version from a decade ago, the FTA said “a significant portion” of Maryland’s design plans might still be applicable.

During Moore’s campaign, he called for “an intermodal Red Line, that is built quickly, cost-effectively, and with community input on stops, disruptions, and impact on local businesses.”

The anger among some who supported the Red Line has yet to subside, while the thought of having to jump hurdles again that were cleared long ago has reignited that ire.

Del. Robbyn T. Lewis (D-Baltimore City) said she’s confident Moore’s team will be able to work with federal officials to push the project forward, adding that Hogan’s decision set the city back years.

“The tragedy of project cancellations is that you literally can’t pick up a canceled plan and start building it,” Lewis said. “The criminal capricious recklessness of that cancellation, we will live with. That’s why it was such a tragedy what was done.”

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said the Red Line’s cancellation “freed up resources for priority projects across the state.”

Many across Baltimore bitterly lament Gov. Hogan’s decision to kill the Red Line light rail

As details of the original project were being hashed out more than a decade ago, there also were other pockets of opposition.

The 2013 federal sign-off for the project’s environmental review noted most complaints it reviewed came from the Canton neighborhood, a relatively wealthy and predominantly White part of the city on the waterfront. Residents raised concerns about parking, traffic and flooding, while also questioning ridership estimates.

The document concluded that while there would be some negative effects on marginalized communities, especially those in heavily Black West Baltimore, those same communities would see some of the greatest benefits as the transit line promoted economic growth and access to homes and businesses.

A key part of a new federal review would be the state’s financial commitment to the project. In its previous iteration, federal funds would have accounted for about 30 percent of the project’s cost, leaving the state to cover the rest. Maryland officials said the current estimate for the rail project is $3.8 billion.

Maryland Del. Tony Bridges (D-Baltimore City), a member of the appropriations committee, said state officials would have to take a “hard look” at what’s being proposed and determine what money is available now and in the future. While he would like to see the original 14-mile rail line project restored, “times have changed. It may be Red Line-like,” Bridges said.

The benefits of the Red Line, or something similar, Bridges said, would include speeding up slow commutes, creating construction jobs and spurring retail and housing development around transit.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) said in a statement that “reviving the Red Line light-rail project would be a major boost,” creating opportunities for equity by “allowing for connectivity between communities that have been segregated for generations.”

New bus system revives anger, frustration over lost light-rail in Baltimore

The Red Line also has influential supporters in Washington. Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (both D) secured a provision in the infrastructure law their offices say was intended to encourage the FTA to work with the state to revive the project.

“Baltimore lost valuable time, resources and opportunities because of Gov. Hogan’s decision to pull the plug on the project 7 years ago, and I’m committed to getting it back on track ASAP,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

Even if federal funding is secured for a second time, completion of the project would take several more years. A timeline still posted to the website of the Baltimore transportation department listed federal funding approval in 2014, with two years of engineering work and six years of construction. The timeline envisioned the line opening in 2022.

Elliott, the Moore spokesman, declined to say if the goal was to start or complete the project during Moore’s time in office, saying the objective is to get it done as soon as possible.

Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, encouraged the incoming Moore administration to immediately begin working with federal officials to determine where the project stands.

Jordan was part of a group that filed a civil rights complaint with federal authorities alleging Hogan’s decision to cancel the project was racial discrimination. Supporters of the rail line said the cancellation starved the city of investment at a time when it was reeling from the death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured in the back of a police van.

“Hogan’s decision did not reflect any product of consultation with the communities most directly affected,” Jordan said.

Ricci said the Hogan administration went on to collaborate with Baltimore leaders to revamp the city’s bus system, while also making record investments in roads and transit.

Supporters of the Red Line project are optimistic about a possible revival, but Lewis said they also need to be realistic about the work ahead.

“For people who think this is a turnkey, they should just be brought to the reality that we still are going to work at this, but we’re ready to work,” she said. “I know it’s going to get done.”

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