Red Line Critics Gird For Battle On 2 Fronts

Foes Of Street-level Tracks Plan Blocking Actions In Washington, Annapolis

August 10, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,

While the effort to improve Baltimore's transit system passed an important milestone last week when Gov. Martin O'Malley selected a specific plan for an east-west light rail line, The Battle of the Red Line is far from over.

Residents in Canton and other areas along the route vow to keep fighting the $1.6 billion plan, which they regard as an assault on the peace, parking and property values in their neighborhoods. And there are two likely battlefields.

"I expect it to play out in Annapolis and in Washington," said Ben Rosenberg, a Canton resident and leader of the anti-Red Line forces.

The stakes are high. Both opponents and backers of the Red Line acknowledge that blocking construction could mean years of delay for any improvement to Baltimore's rail transit system. Even under the most optimistic scenario, the Red Line would not be completed until 2016.

O'Malley's decision may not be popular with some city voters. But to proponents, his selection of a plan that puts rail cars on the surface of Edmondson Avenue and Boston Street was a necessary bow to the realities of federal financing requirements.

And it brings clarity to what was a confusing state of affairs. With his decision, all the remaining alternatives are off the table. The governor's plan is the Red Line - and people are either for it or against it.

Opponents of the 14-mile line from Bayview to Woodlawn have three primary possible lines of attack - through the Federal Transit Administration, the General Assembly and the courts. But stopping the Red Line won't be easy in any forum.

The first place foes can go is the FTA, which will receive Maryland's application for federal funding of the Red Line and evaluate it along with competing projects from around the country.

But that agency is not a court of appeal for outraged neighbors to raise complaints about noise, traffic disruptions, aesthetics, property values or parking spaces. According to spokesman Paul Griffo, the agency leaves those matters to local government.

"FTA doesn't really get involved in the local decision-making process. It really wouldn't be appropriate for us to do so," Griffo said. "Our role is to determine eligibility for federal funding. ... It's up to the local government to come up with a locally preferred alternative and bring it to us."

Griffo noted that opponents of a project can register their opinions through their representatives in Congress. However, two of Maryland's most influential members, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, are outspoken Red Line backers.

Cummings, in particular, could play a pivotal role because of his standing in the African-American community. At the public gathering in Baltimore where O'Malley announced his decision, Cummings forcefully rebuked jeering opponents and rejected suggestions that the state go back to the drawing board.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." Cummings said. "The stars have aligned."

Opponents could throw those stars out of alignment if they are able to demonstrate flaws in the process the state followed or in the numbers underlying its valuation of the project.

Red Line critics are preparing to do just that. The Transit Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore, for instance, is expected to raise objections that the MTA never did a complete analysis of heavy rail such as the existing Metro subway as a potential option. The MTA will dispute that, arguing that it looked into heavy rail and determined that it would be too expensive to warrant a full-blown study.

Other opponents are already focusing on revisions the MTA made to its ridership projections. The opposition blog Red Line Underground last week demanded that the MTA explain how that estimate could have increased 28 percent - from 42,190 to 54,000. It's a question the FTA could pose, too.

But Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning, said the new numbers will come as no surprise to the federal agency. The state and federal agencies have worked closely each step of the way, and formulas used to reach the new projection - using 2007 data rather than 1996 numbers - have been thoroughly vetted, he said.

"I'm comfortable the work will stand up to FTA scrutiny," he said.

If the federal agency finds no serious MTA errors and approves the project, the focus of the battle could shift to funding. Even if the Red Line receives full federal funding, the state would likely have to come up with at least $800 million toward its share, and foes could seek to derail the project in Annapolis.

While transportation projects are not part of the general appropriations process, the opinion of local legislators can be decisive when officials set priorities.

"They're not going to do it over the objections of the local delegations," Kay said.

The Red Line has already produced some fractures in the Baltimore delegation.

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