Finding light rail's track

Our view : Red Line option of light rail and some tunnels offers a potential compromise

October 05, 2008

Every prudent act of government, one of Britain's great political thinkers once wrote, is founded on compromise. No better example may be found than in Baltimore's proposed Red Line to extend transit from Woodlawn to Canton, and the form it might take.

Should it be a rapid bus line with its own right-of-way or light rail? How much of it should be built on the surface and how much underground? The project's cost varies widely depending on those choices - from $545 million to $2.4 billion.

If money were no object, the Red Line would be a subway, fast, efficient, high capacity and the least disruptive to neighborhoods. But that's not reality. Such heavy rail would be off-the-chart expensive. Maryland will need support from the Federal Transit Administration if this project is to be built and so will face competition from many other cities for limited federal dollars.

That's why the recent decision by the Greater Baltimore Committee to endorse Option 4C, a light rail line with tunnels from the Interstate 70 park-and-ride lot and under Cooks Lane as well as through downtown beginning at Martin Luther King Boulevard and ending at Boston Street, makes a good deal of sense.

As a light rail line, it would still be costly - an estimated $1.2 billion - but it would attract more than 42,000 daily riders by 2030, far more than the 28,000 who take the city's light rail today. It would also effectively connect with the existing north-south light rail line and the Metro subway, with planned underground stations at Lombard and Howard streets as well as Charles Center.

Some civic leaders will no doubt object to this. It would certainly alter life along parts of Edmondson Avenue that would have to share the road with light rail trains. And despite putting most of the 14-mile line on the surface, it still might be too expensive to qualify for federal funds. That's because the FTA formula weighs construction and operating costs against the impact on congestion (too often giving short shrift to such factors as the effect on urban redevelopment or vehicle emissions).

But the proposal is probably on the right track - if further tweaks are made. The state doesn't have to choose a preferred option until next year, but this ought to be the centerpiece of conversation between now and then.

Meanwhile, the next president and Congress would be wise to invest far more resources in transit. With higher energy costs and the threat posed by climate change, the need for spending more on sensible public transportation has never been greater. But that, too, would no doubt require some compromise.

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