Congressmen to push for rail funding

Federal money sought for first leg of city project

March 07, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Members of Maryland's congressional delegation said yesterday that they intend to seek federal money to begin building one segment of the Baltimore Regional Rail Plan - an east-west line from Woodlawn to Fells Point.

But the Ehrlich administration said a final decision has not been made on whether to seek the money, and it was unclear if the delegation would proceed without the state's blessing.

The congressmen met for more than an hour yesterday with state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. After the meeting, several representatives said they will include plans to build a rail line from Woodlawn to Fells Point in their six-year request for federal transportation money that is due next week.

"We think it's realistic to expect this project can start construction within the next six years," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "If we do not make a request, we don't have options open."

Flanagan declined to comment, but a spokesman said he "believes that it's important to keep all options open for the Baltimore regional transit plan and to work with the delegation."

Flanagan had said earlier in the week that the state would not seek federal construction money for the region's rail plan because it was not far enough along in terms of planning or engineering. He said two Washington-area transit projects were the only ones in the state ready for construction money.

Those comments sparked an outcry from Baltimore-area elected officials, who mobilized in an effort to persuade Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to reconsider.

Maryland must submit a plan by March 14 asking for money for each project it wishes to begin in the next six years. If construction money is not sought for the rail plan this year, the state's next chance will be in 2009.

"We cannot afford to wait another six years to go after this construction money," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and member of the House transportation committee. "I'm going to work hard to make sure the Red Line construction money is there."

The Red Line is the top priority in Baltimore's rail plan, which calls for the creation of six interwoven transit lines at a cost of at least $12 billion over the next 20 to 40 years. The first Red Line segment, a 10.4-mile leg of subway or light rail from Woodlawn to Fells Point, is roughly estimated to cost $1.4 billion.

"We intend on aggressively pursuing this money for our state and our region," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat from Baltimore County. "We have to act now. We have to move forward now."

Asked whether the congressmen would seek construction money even if the Ehrlich administration objects, Ruppersberger said, "It will all come together."

While only members of Congress can request federal money for transportation projects, they almost always do so in conjunction with their state governments - which must help pay for the projects.

Cummings said he would be reluctant to go against Ehrlich's wishes, but that he was "very confident" the governor and Flanagan would come around on the rail plan. He repeated Cardin's pledge that the delegation will request a "large number" of dollars for the rail plan.

Cardin and Cummings played down a suggestion that the transit plan would be just a rapid bus line. Flanagan had said the state was seriously considering converting some of the proposed rail lines into "bus rapid-transit" routes, which usually involve creating designated bus lanes on highways and city streets.

But Cardin said yesterday, "The understanding is the Red Line would be rail."

Also yesterday, the head of Baltimore's transportation office questioned the feasibility of creating bus lanes on crowded city streets. Alfred Foxx said bus rapid-transit is not a suitable alternative to rail in the city.

"My goal is to alleviate that traffic congestion in the downtown area, not add to it," Foxx said.

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