Cheers from political and business leaders and jeers from neighborhood activists greeted Gov. Martin O'Malley's announcement Tuesday that he will seek federal funding for a 14-mile light rail system with limited tunneling as Maryland's plan to build the long-awaited east-west Red Line.
During an appearance at West Baltimore's MARC station, O'Malley surprised nobody by selecting the plan that has won the endorsement of Mayor Sheila Dixon, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and the Greater Baltimore Committee. At the same time, the governor sought without success to reassure opponents of surface light rail in their communities that the Red Line would bear little resemblance to the system that clatters along Howard Street.
"This is not your grandfather's light rail," O'Malley told the crowd of several hundred at the station, where the MARC system would interconnect with the Red Line. He promised a system that would be sleeker and quieter than the existing system, which opened in the early 1990s.
The governor had just arrived from an earlier announcement at New Carrollton, where he also chose light rail over rapid bus alternatives for the proposed Purple Line in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Elected officials flocked to appear at O'Malley's side at that event, and opponents of the plan apparently decided to skip the announcement.
The greeting in O'Malley's hometown provided a stark contrast. As he disembarked from the MARC train, protesters unfolded banners opposing surface light rail on Edmondson Avenue and Boston Street. As he spoke, opponents from the affected neighborhoods interrupted with catcalls and booing.
The plan O'Malley chose as the "locally preferred option" for the $1.6 billion transit line would run light rail in tunnels beneath downtown, Harbor East, Fells Point and Cooks Lane but otherwise on the surface for most of its 14-mile length from Woodlawn to Bayview. It is a modified version of the same plan that has aroused bitter opposition from some residents of Canton and West Baltimore for its failure to include tunnels under Edmondson and Boston.
State officials said such extensive tunneling would have made the project far too expensive to qualify for federal funding. Even to move forward with the alternative O'Malley chose, the Maryland Transit Administration made several significant changes to contain costs to stay within federal guidelines.
One was to design a mile-long tunnel under Cooks Lane in West Baltimore with one track rather than two, requiring eastbound and westbound trains to share that section. Another was to combine two stations into a single Howard Street/University Center stop several blocks away from the University of Maryland's Baltimore complex.
In another significant change, the MTA added about two-tenths of a mile to its downtown-Fells Point tunnel so that the light rail would emerge around The Can Company complex east of Montford Avenue rather than near the Captain James restaurant at Aliceanna Street.
According to Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning, the change was made largely because the MTA agreed to requests from Fells Point residents that it run that part of the route under Fleet Street rather than Aliceanna.
The governor's plan, chosen over several rapid bus options that failed to garner much enthusiasm, will be sent to the federal government to compete for funding with proposals from across the nation, including the $1.5 billion Purple Line. The federal government typically pays 50 percent of the costs of transit projects it approves, Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan said.
Both projects could be started as early as 2013 and opened in 2016 if they receive prompt federal approval, Cahalan said.