Almost Time For Officials To Draw Red Line In Sand

GETTING THERE

August 17, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Before Gov. Martin O'Malley made his choice of a specific plan for the Red Line, Baltimore's elected officials had little reason to take a stand. Many alternatives were officially on the table, though anyone who was paying attention knew that only one - the option O'Malley chose - was politically and economically viable.

Now there's no middle ground. There's only one Red Line. The question is whether you're for it or against it.

Some politicians recognized that, and made their choice. State Sen. George W. Della said he would oppose the 14-mile transit line because it would run on the surface through Canton, which lies in his 46th District. The members of the 41st District delegation - Sen. Lisa Gladden and Dels. Sandy Rosenberg, Nathaniel Oaks and Jill Carter - dropped their futile support for an unaffordable alternative and fell in line behind the governor's choice. Their explanation was that while they wished they could have had a tunnel under Edmondson Avenue, they had wrung all the concessions they could out of the city and state and would not support efforts to block the light rail line.

Both positions are defensible. I can't say the same about the stance taken by city Councilman Jim Kraft. He's both for the Red Line and against it.

For now, the councilman is still saying he's all for the Red Line as long as it's in a tunnel all the way through residential Canton to Clinton Street - a plan that is now off the table. At the same time, he's trying to avoid a break with O'Malley, saying the governor made the decision he had to make.

Kraft is in a difficult position. Many of his Canton constituents are vocal, well-organized and passionate advocates who would rather scuttle Baltimore's first new rail transit line in two decades than see trains run on the surface along Boston Street. At the same time, he represents neighborhoods that see a lot to like in the current Red Line plan, including Fells Point and Greektown.

In effect, the councilman is holding out hope for a federal miracle that will spare Baltimore - and himself - the need to make hard choices. In Kraft's view, the money to get around federal guidelines and tunnel wherever people want a tunnel could materialize through the intercession of St. Barbara of Mikulski or St. Elijah of Cummings.

Or, as Old Blue Eyes sang it: "Fairy tales can come true. It can happen to you. If you're young at heart."

But while Kraft hopes for a resolution where everyone joins hands and sings "Kumbaya," battle lines are forming. The realistic choices are to move forward with the governor's plan or to block it.

There's only one remaining step in the process where public opinion plays a significant role. If the Federal Transit Administration approves Maryland's Red Line plan, the state will still have to put up 50 percent of the $1.6 billion cost. Diehard opponents will seek to deny that funding in Annapolis. And they're going to want to know which elected officials will go to the barricades with them.

Having talked with Della, I'm comfortable he'll fight for the Canton opponents to the last ditch. Having talked with Kraft, I'm not sure what they can expect.

It's August now, so elected officials who have so far sided with neighborhood groups have a few weeks to weigh the issue. But when September comes, serious people get down to business.

Responsible elected officials will outline the facts without sugar-coating them.

Supporters of the Red Line are asking the public to accept a far-from-perfect system that will not come cheap. In particular, they need to make the case that single-track operations through a Cooks Lane tunnel - a late change to the project to stay within federal funding guidelines - will be a mere inconvenience rather than a safety hazard.

Opponents are asking their fellow citizens to steer a course that would set back Baltimore's prospects for a more robust transit system for years - most likely into the 2020s - with no guarantee of a better result then. Vehicle traffic will continue to swell in both the Edmondson Avenue and Boston Street corridors, bringing increased pollution, noise and pedestrian danger to the affected neighborhoods. Parking will get scarcer, with no transit to offset the demand for spaces.

So do you sit down with the neighborhood groups and tell them a surface Red Line is so unfair to their communities that you're with them all the way? Or do you explain that you fought as hard as you could to win improvements but now have to go with what's best for the entire region?

Kraft said he's not avoiding a decision. "I'm trying to reach an accommodation that's acceptable to everyone," he said.

Fair enough. But Kraft and other politicians must take care that in their efforts to please everybody, they don't end up pleasing nobody.

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