Ehrlich to cut transit request

State's 6-year proposal won't seek U.S. funds for Baltimore rail construction

City is falling behind, critics say

March 05, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

In a blow to advocates for an expanded transit system in Baltimore, the Ehrlich administration said yesterday that it will not seek federal money to start construction of the regional rail plan that has been touted as key to the city's revival.

Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said the state will request only planning and engineering money for the rail plan in its six-year transportation proposal that is due to Congress next week. The next chance for Maryland to request construction money will be in 2009.

"In the next four to six years, we could plan an additional line, and that's about all that could be accomplished," Flanagan said. "That doesn't really have an impact on Baltimore's aspirations because Baltimore is not able to step up to the plate for construction at this point."

But elected officials from the Baltimore area said construction could have begun in a few years, and they were upset that their recent lobbying of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did not pay off. Key state legislators, county executives and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley had urged Ehrlich to seek construction money.

"I'm very disappointed," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who argues that Baltimore is falling behind the Washington region in transportation funding. "This does not catch us up. It puts us further behind."

The entire Baltimore Regional Rail Plan would create six interwoven transit lines running through the city and its suburbs, take 20 to 40 years to build and cost at least $12 billion.

As recently as yesterday morning, advocates had been hoping to get construction money for one or two of the lines - a 10.5-mile subway or light rail segment from Woodlawn to Fells Point and a 4.1-mile extension of the Metro subway from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State University.

While planning and engineering work for those lines will move forward over the next six years, the Ehrlich administration's decision ensures that ground will not be broken until at least 2010.

Flanagan also played down notions yesterday that the Baltimore rail plan would actually include rail lines. While he said it could be a light rail line, he wants to study "bus rapid-transit," which typically involves buses traveling on streets in exclusive lanes.

"There are amazing new bus technologies that really increase customer acceptance," Flanagan said. "It adds a lot of flexibility. As you look three, four, five years into the future, that really is the leading edge."

Bus rapid-transit is also much cheaper than rail lines, which often cost at least $50 million per mile to build above ground and $250 million per mile of subway.

Flanagan said he is not referring to the region's plan as the Baltimore rail plan.

"I'm calling it the Baltimore transit plan," he said.

Supporters of the rail plan fear that such rhetoric - as well as the loss of construction money for six years - will drain considerable momentum that has been building since the plan was unveiled to great fanfare a year ago.

"People are excited about the rail plan," said Dan Pontious, director of the Baltimore Regional Partnership. "This [decision] means we're not moving full-steam ahead at all."

Earlier, Ehrlich had hinted at yesterday's announcement, saying that hard decisions would have to be made before the March 14 deadline to submit new transportation projects to Congress.

"We think that in the short term we can do a major roads project and a major transit project," Ehrlich said in an interview.

He said the roads project would be the $1.5 billion Intercounty Connector highway from Rockville to Laurel, which was recently put on a fast track for federal approval. The transit project remains up in the air, though it will not be Baltimore's rail plan.

Flanagan said there are only two projects far enough along that the state could seek construction money - the Purple Line extension of the Washington Metro system and the Corridor Cities Transitway, a rapid bus or light rail line along Interstate 270 between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg.

While the Purple Line has long been envisioned as light rail, Flanagan said the state was "looking very seriously" at making that a rapid bus line as well.

Proponents of the Purple Line say they will be the most competitive on a national stage. The entire 14-mile line from Bethesda to New Carrollton would cost $1.4 billion as a rail project. But backers are seeking just the western portion of the line - from Bethesda to Silver Spring - which would cost about $390 million.

The line has been in the works for more than 10 years, and most of the necessary studies are complete. The state says it is just a year or two away from being ready for construction on that western portion.

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