Frank DeFilippo: Baltimore’s Red Line Rumble Depends on Which Party Elects the Next Governor

Equity
The proposed Red Line route, back in the day. Map from msa.maryland.gov.

“Hurry, get on, now it’s coming,

Listen to those rails a-thrumming.”

– Take the A-Train

Transportation issues are rarely about getting from here to there. Usually they involve money, race, labor unions, jobs, votes, and whose back porch will disappear in the bulldozer’s path.

So saying, there are two sticks of dynamite in the newly invigorated push to revive Baltimore’s stranded Red Line project: (1) The party of the governor who’s elected next year; or (2) The costly and redundant tunnel section of the original plan.

You can bet the condo that there’s simply no way that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will reverse his toe-taging of the proposed East-West addition to the city’s subway system in his final year and more in office.

Besides, Hogan’s practically bankrupted the transportation fund which greatly compromises its bonding capacity. As a general rule, every $1 of cash in the fund will leverage $10 in bonded borrowing.

Fresh impetus for the crosstown subway extension was provided by Maryland’s two U.S. senators, Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats. They rightfully tucked language into the Biden administration’s vaunted $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that would trigger federal funding if state and local officials reprise the scuttled Red Line.

Hogan, in nixing the project, rejected $900 million in federal funds, a big chunk of the original cost. Hogan spread the state’s share of the cost – $1 billion – among the outlying counties to build roads.

The $900 million that Hogan squandered was part of Barbara Mikulski’s legacy as a U.S. senator. As one of her final acts as outgoing chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mikulski made certain that the $900 million was buried in the federal budget to pay solely for the tunnel through downtown Baltimore, a major sticking point.

The Red Line followed the precise East-West route Mikulski fought years earlier that vaulted her into public office, the first step in Baltimore’s City Council.

Keep in mind, too, that, at the time, in addition to federal and state funds, Baltimore County had pledged $50 million to support the project and Baltimore City had promised $200 million in in-kind contributions, whatever they were, but not cash. Again, at the time, the actual numbers did not compute to the system’s cost, and no one had explained where the additional funds would come from.

The dirty little secret is that the Red Line’s transportation need was questionable. Its economic boost and symbolic lift were, without a doubt, crucial to the struggling city. Truth is, the money just wasn’t there. It was $1 billion shy of the pot, with no other visible source. With Baltimore’s shrinking population, the fare box is a source of diminishing returns.

Ballooning costs of the Red Line, at the time, had soared to $3 billion from its original price of under $2 billion, with cost overruns sure to come – especially when tunneling through the city’s underground web of cables and sewer lines – but not factored in. Six years later, after Hogan killed the project in 2015, add to those numbers probably at least another billion or so.

To point one: If a Republican governor is elected next year, the allegiance will be to the outlying counties and not to Baltimore City. What’s more, any GOP successor to Hogan will likely subscribe to his policies and treatment of fiscal matters in much the same manner as he bequeaths. Of the current roster, one candidate has already made that pledge; the other could be much worse, more like Donald Trump’s avatar.

The blue of the I-95 corridor is matched in opposite sentiment and political disposition by the red of the counties beyond. There the residents rely on roads and cars and not on public transportation to conquer time and space. Among the rewards for political victory is the very visible means of accommodating mobility.

A Democratic governor, to reverse the equation, is more likely to revert to the original plan of providing public transportation as a means of unlocking opportunity to reach waiting jobs as well as an act of conscience to the environment.

What’s more, adding the Red Line to the Baltimore rail system would also be following President Biden’s determination to modernize the nation’s infrastructure as well as create jobs. In other words, a Democrat is much more likely to revive the Red Line than a Republican.

To point two: In rejecting the Red Line, what Hogan described as a “boondoggle,” was no doubt the proposed tunnel through the center of downtown Baltimore. Simply put, why build a tunnel next to a tunnel that already exists? The answer is obvious: That’s where the money is to be made because of the laborious, time-consuming work and the man-hours involved.

At the time of the fuss over the Red Line, there were those who questioned the actual planning of the system because the parts didn’t mesh properly and the lines did not connect efficiently. The tunnel was one objection. Another was the planned nexus at Lexington Market, where all the parts were supposed to intersect.

An alternative suggestion would be a major mass transportation hub at the Rogers Avenue station, which would be a more efficient use of existing facilities and eliminate unnecessary spending on a big dig through the city’s underbelly. Put another way, simply hook up the line from Woodlawn to the existing system at Rogers Avenue and eliminate the need for the tunnel.

The Easterly, or Westerly, direction of the Red Line is, depending on which way you’re heading, overall, a proposed over-and-underground mass transit route from Woodlawn to the Johns Hopkins Hospital Bayview Campus, traveling east through the gentrified neighborhood of Canton where opposition from neighborhood associations was fierce.

In that newly spiffed up area, the transit line would run above ground and limit vehicle access on Boston Street. The idea, to be sure, is to shuttle Westside folks to the east and not the reverse. There’s likely more to come on the subject if the Red Line is reborn.

The millennials, who love city life and may be Baltimore’s population of the future, prefer walking, cycling (though they pay no road use taxes for those exclusive bike lanes) and public transportation over the ubiquitous automobile. The popularity of the city’s Circulator is testimony.

And as a merit badge of modern life, young people prefer to live, work and play in the same general neighborhood, not only as a matter of convenience but also of public health. Walking or riding an electrified train or trolley does not produce ambient contaminants.

By the end, through all of his eight years in office, Hogan will have left Maryland’s unified transportation fund in perilous condition.

By Hogan’s own admission, the fund is broke, not so much overspent or underperforming by use, but by a governor hell-bent on reducing tolls, taxes and fees that underwrite the self-perpetuating fund and by pledging the next several administrations into debt as well as unforeseeable plights because of his stubborn commitment to public-private partnerships.

Keep in mind the Purple Line debacle as the future of Maryland’s transportation grid unrolls. The next governor will likely pay the penalty of raising tolls and fees to make up for Hogan’s mindless cuts.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.