Roughly a year after Gov. Wes Moore revived plans for the Red Line, an east-west rapid transit project that would link East and West Baltimore, officials are gearing up to answer the potentially billion-dollar question: Will it be a train or a bus?

State officials have said an announcement on whether Baltimore will get roughly 14 miles of new light rail track or dedicated rapid bus lanes will be made before the end of June.

Last fall, the Maryland Transit Administration released the results of data modeling that showed projected ridership, costs and more for the three potential routes. One would require digging a new downtown tunnel, while the others would be aboveground. Officials have yet to say if those routes would be steel train track or pavement for a bus.

Their findings suggest a train with a tunnel under downtown will get the most riders but also have the highest price tag. It’s the option closest to the original, approved Red Line before it was canned almost 10 years ago, and it is the route with the most public support, the MTA has said.

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Sticky notes containing feedback from community members dot a proposed Red Line map during an MTA open house at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s SMC Campus Center last year. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Here’s what to watch as we get ready for the news.

1. First transit expansion in decades

While similar-sized U.S. cities have added new train, trolley and bus rapid transit systems over the past decades, Baltimore got left in the station. Cities such as Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis got sleek, new trains and the transit-oriented development that followed them; the closest Baltimore got was rebranded bus routes.

It wasn’t supposed to shake out that way. In 2002, planners recommended 66 miles of new passenger railway to complement Baltimore’s existing Metro and light rail lines — it would have created a whole network. The city’s rail map would have resembled those of other major U.S. cities.

The Red Line was the only project from that plan to move forward — and, more than 20 years later, it still exists only on paper.

Instead, a single Metro line connects the northwest suburbs to downtown and the region’s lone light rail line serves as a north-south spine. Since the last streetcar left, east-west transit has always been a bus trip.

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Planners have known for much longer than two decades that there’s a critical gap in east-west connectivity. The MTA is trying short-term solutions, such as a limited-stop bus service that mirrors the future Red Line route and plans for dedicated lanes along it to help it beat traffic.

2. Election year politics

In 2015, then-Gov. Larry Hogan canceled the Red Line — get ready to hear that fact repeated over and over again. As the two-term former Republican governor vies for an open U.S. Senate seat, a race that could tip control of the chamber to Republicans, state and local leaders won’t let you forget Hogan’s track record in Baltimore.

That includes calling the Red Line a “boondoggle” and returning $900 million to the federal government that would have helped build it. Building the downtown tunnel was the “fatal flaw” to a project that was simply too expensive, Pete Rahn, Hogan’s transportation secretary, said at the time. Hogan instead redirected $736 million in state money to highway projects outside Baltimore.

It won’t be new. Moore, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and other Democratic leaders have used Hogan’s legacy as a repeated punching bag, explaining everything from transportation woes to budget problems as the results of Hogan’s decision-making.

Moore has started emphasizing the “old” in “old Governor” when asked to comment about the November showdown between Hogan and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, a fellow Democrat endorsed by Moore.

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Hogan was a popular Republican in a blue state, so expect the Democrats to throw everything they have at him — including the dirt dug up to break ground on a new transit line.

3. Money is tight

Don’t let spending on major projects such as the multibillion-dollar Amtrak tunnel or the future rebuild of the Francis Scott Key Bridge fool you — the state’s transportation budget isn’t in great shape. Officials anticipate a $3 billion shortfall over the next five years because of declining gas tax revenue, inflation and other factors.

The Federal Transit Administration has dedicated grant programs for projects like the Red Line — other initiatives such as the Key Bridge rebuild shouldn’t affect a Red Line application because they are from different buckets of money with different spending criteria.

Gov. Wes Moore, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and other officials pose for a photo after a press conference to announce the continuation of the Red Line proposal last year. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

But Maryland will have to put up its share of funds to build the Red Line and then will be on its own to operate and maintain it. How well a local transit agency maintains its assets is something the federal government considers when it determines if it will sign on the dotted line. The MTA has a growing backlog of maintenance needs driven largely by aging vehicles, but officials say new light rail and subway trains that are on their way should help their case.

The MTA is projecting the Red Line to cost from $1.9 billion to $7.2 billion to build, depending on the route and mode. And if the Purple Line, an overbudget and overdue light rail project under construction in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, is any barometer, the initial price tag could grow.

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Some state lawmakers have argued that new transit lines are wasteful because they can’t recoup costs at the fare box. But transit advocates respond that there always seems to be money for new highways and no one questions if they will pay for themselves.

4. A long timeline with plenty of unknowns

Building this stuff takes a long time.

It will be another couple of months before officials propose a “state-preferred alternative” that will include both the mode — train or bus — and route. That’s what the MTA will submit to the federal government to ask for larger grants.

The ball is moving, but some say they won’t believe the Red Line is happening until they see shovels in the ground.

Light rail trains operated by the MTA run on a north-south line, but the east-west corridor is served by buses. That could change if the state gives the green light to a Red Line light rail line. (Maryland Transit Administration via X/Twitter)

Earlier in June, Maryland’s Board of Public Works approved a $100 million contract for pre-engineering work. Breaking ground on construction could be years away.

Had Hogan not canceled it, there’s a chance the Red Line would be shuttling passengers in a tunnel underneath downtown today. In reality, it could be a decade before Baltimoreans can get onboard.