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The crystal ball for mass transit in metropolitan Baltimore: decidedly murky

Proposed Red Line will gobble up most of the available funding.

Above: A Metro subway arrives at the Shot Tower station yesterday. Under BRTB’s draft plan, the line would be extended less than a mile east.

Every four years, the federal government mandates that the Baltimore region translate its long-range ideas for transportation into a plan that actually considers the anticipated funding over the next 20 years.

The latest draft plan of the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board (BRTB) shows just how strange the clash between vision and reality can be.

With the economic climate resisting tax increases and the feds being torn between budget cuts and more deficits to finance “shovel-ready” infrastructure, the crystal ball is decidedly murky.

The financial forecast is supplied by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Office of Finance. It projects $2.376 billion to be available to the Baltimore area for expansion of its highway, rail, bicycle and pedestrian network during the first six years of the plan, from 2016 to 2021.

The BRTB plan seems oblivious to the restraint this amount should entail.

It improbably calls for allocating $2.22 billion – or 93% – to build the light-rail Red Line between Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and the Social Security Administration complex in Woodlawn.

After the Red Line’s projected completion in 2012, very little mass transit expansion is anticipated through 2035, as the lion’s share of transportation money goes to highway projects.

Among the projects listed are the widening of I-97 from Md. Route 32 to US 50/301, the widening of I-795 from Franklin Blvd. to south of Owings Mills Blvd., and the reconstruction of the I-95 interchange at Md. Route 175.

Hearing on Plan Today

Transit would recede to less than one-fourth of overall regional transportation spending between 2022 and 2035, or just over $2 billion out of $8.8 billion. This amount does not include operations, maintenance and system preservation.

The timing of individual projects is not specified in the draft plan, but officials have pushed 2016 as the start date for Red Line construction, meaning that all its funding sources must be in order.

Because all transportation projects that receive federal funds must go through the BRTB planning process, its priorities are the official blueprint of future transportation plans.

There will be a public meeting today to solicit comments on the BRTB plan at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council office at McHenry Row off Fort Avenue from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Shrinking Mass Transit

The BRTB draft plan is a far cry from MDOT’s 2002 regional rail plan, which was considerably more oriented to mass transit in and around Baltimore. That plan did not consider costs and funding, as the current plan does.

For example, extension of the Metro subway line east of its current terminus at Johns Hopkins Hospital – recommended in the 2002 plan as an equal priority to the Red Line – would be built less than a mile to a new terminus at North Avenue.

A previous MTA study to extend the line to Morgan State University or Good Samaritan Hospital on its way to White Marsh and Martin Airport was scuttled several years ago, presumably due to lack of feasibility.

The Yellow, Orange and extended Green lines proposed in 2002 by the Maryland Department of Transportation are all scrapped in the BRTB draft plan. (MDOT)

The Yellow, Orange and extended Green lines proposed in 2002 by Maryland DOT are all scrapped in the BRTB draft plan. So is the Blue Line's loop from Penn Station to Camden Station via the Inner Harbor. (MDOT)

There is also no funding for a previously proposed MARC station on the Metro extension north of Hopkins Hospital. There is only one new MARC station in the plan, in Bayview serving the Red Line.

Also missing-in-action is the 2002 proposed rail-transit line from downtown Baltimore to Towson and the Red Line extension to Dundalk and Turner’s Station.

The 2002 plan’s proposed extension of the existing Light Rail line from BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport to Columbia Town Center has been rerouted instead to a park-and-ride lot at Route 32. Funding has been included for planning and preliminary engineering of this project, but not for construction, which has been relegated to the status of an “illustrative project,” which is sort of like an “honorable mention.”

MARC Improvements, but no MagLev

New rail transit between Baltimore and Washington thus continues to be in a state of flux. A decade ago the state made a glowing recommendation for MagLev high-speed rail between the two cities.

Then they turned to a proposed extension of the D.C. Metro from Greenbelt to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, prior to the current plan to extend light rail from BWI to Md. Route 32, which would feed the Camden MARC line.

Major improvements to the MARC system are projected. Between 2016 and 2020, the focus would be the Camden Line between Baltimore and Washington via Laurel.

After 2020, about $370 million would be used for improvements and expansion mostly of the Penn Line.

BRTB also recommends a new grade-separated bus rapid-transit line in the median of US 29 from Broken Land Parkway in Columbia to Route 198 near the InterCounty Connector in Montgomery County.

In sum, fast growing Howard County’s priorities appear to be aligned more with the Washington metropolitan area than with Baltimore.

Timing is Critical

The timing of projects must be given particular consideration in the plan because federal regulations specify that costs should be projected according to “year of expenditure.”

This is at least partly responsible for the recent revision of the Red Line’s cost from about $1.8 to $2.22 billion, reflecting that costs increase over time. If the Red Line’s start of construction is delayed beyond 2016, costs would have to be projected upwards again.

Similarly, all other projects in the long-range plan reflect their timing. Since the Red Line dominates the early years, the costs of virtually all other projects must be projected upwards to reflect the time lag.

Adding to this complexity, federal funding remains uncertain as Congress contemplates future expenditures for all transportation modes. The MDOT financial forecast anticipates $1 billion in federal “New Starts” transit funding, but this is spread evenly over the entire 20-year life of the plan.

MDOT Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley recently told the Baltimore Business Journal that the state needs a federal commitment before it will start any new transportation project. “If there is no federal commitment, that funding would go to other projects,” she said.

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