As Democratic field promises to revisit Red Line, advocates have reason for optimism

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A Red Line Station (rendering)

With the release earlier this week of Rushern Baker’s transportation plan, the Prince George’s County executive joined the crowded field of Democratic candidates running for governor in calling for the revival of the Red Line, the east-west light rail line that was cancelled in the early days of Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration.

All the major candidates, including former NAACP president Ben Jealous, Montgomery County State Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr., former Venable LLP chairman Jim Shea, former Michelle Obama adviser Krish Vignarajah and entrepreneur Alec Ross, have pledged to bring the project back.*

Though the issue hasn’t been in the headlines for some time, resentment among critics of the last-minute nixing of the rail project, after years of planning and lining up federal funding, has never really died. As Hogan and administration officials toured Baltimore today during a full slate of activities in the city, critics decrying his decision protested one of the events, the Real News Network reports.

For longtime advocates of the Red Line, there’s a slight increase in enthusiasm with nearly all of Hogan’s potential challengers committing to resurrecting the project.

Noting that a rapid transit east-west route was called for in the first published plan for the subway in 1968, Central Maryland Transportation Alliance president and CEO Brian O’Malley said support from the top is the first step in getting the line back on track.

“When Gov. Hogan canceled the Red Line he turned away almost $1 billion dollars in federal funding and then spent all of the state’s Red Line money on road projects outside Baltimore,” he wrote in a statement. “Given all that, determining the best way forward cannot be done without strong leadership from the top so we’re optimistic that candidates vying for the Governor’s position are making their priorities clear.”

Del. Robbyn Lewis (D-Baltimore), the founder and chair of the advocacy group Red Line Now, described it as a “breath of fresh air.”

“My first reaction is I’m glad that people running for the highest office in the state recognize the critical importance of mass transit infrastructure and transit investment,” she said. “It’s a breath of fresh air, it’s so encouraging.”

“The cynical part of me,” she continued, “says, where were when you guys when we needed champions for the Red Line? But we don’t have time for cynicism these days.”

She was equally critical of Hogan’s decision, likening it to putting nearly a billion dollars in a trash can and lighting it on fire.

In August 2015, MTA Administrator Paul Comfort told the Federal Transit Administration the state would no longer be seeking the $900 million in federal funds for the project. When the line was scrapped, Transportation Secretary Peter Rahn called a $1 billion tunnel underneath downtown Baltimore a “fatal flaw,” as The Sun reported at the time.

In killing the project, Hogan said: “We are not opposed to public transportation. We are opposed to wasteful boondoggles.”

Famously, he then turned around and announced $2 billion in highway funding, and when lauding the move on social media, his map literally cut Baltimore City out.

Lewis said the embrace of transit by Democrats changes the tenor of the conversation.

“These candidates seem to be speaking of the Red Line like it’s economic development, which it is,” she said.

But both Lewis and O’Malley stressed it could take a long time to get back to where things were in 2015. Besides having to round up federal money again, lawmakers and planners would have to revisit blueprints to see if anything needs to be redone or updated. Environmental and health reviews would have to be completed again.

It may take on another form altogether.

“We need an east-west line to connect the MARC with the light rail and the subway. We still need that. It might just be called something different, it might look a little different,” said Lewis. “The focus is the outcome, not an emotional attachment to a specific design document that may be outdated by the time we’re shovel ready.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Krish Vignarajah has not explicitly called for finishing the Red Line. Baltimore Fishbowl regrets the error.

Brandon Weigel

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