Baltimore transit line map and images of light rail, bus, Governor Hogan, Wes Moore

The 50 or so Baltimoreans who’ve logged on for the Maryland Transit Administration’s pair of summer online public meetings are buzzing. As MTA’s planners sift through seven recently-unveiled visions of light rail, heavy rail and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) that would extend from the county across the city’s east-west axis, meeting goers’ hopes, fears and outright impatience all bubble to the surface.

“Making it faster, getting it off the street seems like the way to go,” says Bill Marker of Barre Circle, nodding to several light or heavy rail proposals. “You’ve got the Road to Nowhere, you need to use that for something,” chimes in Arlene Fisher, speaking of the infamous 1.4-mile ditch on the west side. Cynthia Gross, president of East Baltimore’s C.A.R.E. Community Association, worries aloud about potential tunneling beneath “already crumbling” infrastructure. Another caller is more blunt: “Stop wasting time studying and start building something.”

It’s been years since the political stars were this well aligned for substantially upgrading Baltimore’s transit system.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law last year, is set to provide cities with billions in federal funding over the next five years for BRT, rail and other major transit projects, and Maryland plans to get in line.

In Annapolis, Gov. Larry Hogan — infamous for canceling the long-planned $2.9 billion Red Line in 2015 and redirecting most of the funding to roads while proceeding with Washington Metro’s Purple Line — is due to term out in January . Wes Moore, a Baltimore resident who supports expanding mass transit, is favored to succeed him as the Democratic nominee in heavily blue Maryland.

But advocates and state officials need to rebuild consensus and trust eroded by years of broken promises before they can start building new transit.

The MTA has embarked this summer on a new study for east-west transit (and will again this fall for another menu of north-south proposals).

A coalition of community leaders and policymakers, working separately, hopes to resuscitate the Red Line plan as it was left in 2015 and, additionally, go so far as to supplant the MTA with a wholly new regional transit authority that could steer the project forward. The Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, a nonprofit transportation advocacy group, is leading this grassroots effort with considerable political support, including from U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, who got language included in the infrastructure bill that could help revive the project.

As state officials and revive-the-Red-Line proponents push for different ideas of an east-west transit transformation in Baltimore, each side shares some crucial ground: a belief that Baltimore needs more than the status quo of state-run BaltimoreLink buses and unreliable, one-line subway and light rail systems to adequately connect some of Baltimore’s lowest-income, majority-Black neighborhoods to jobs and transit-oriented development.

“I’ve been around long enough that I never completely call a project dead,” said Todd Lang, director of transportation planning for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a General Assembly-created nonprofit that coordinates local elected officials to improve the Baltimore region’s economic health. “While it may take a different form than it did originally, if the need is there and everyone recognizes it, then eventually the project will come around.”

Narrowing down the options

The MTA plans to cull down its seven corridor alternatives to several by 2024 and finalize a “preferred local alternative,” as the state did with the Red Line more than a decade ago, by 2026. Optimistically, assuming federal approval of the plan and local, state and federal financing, final design and construction could be underway in five years.

To sum up the MTA’s proposed alternatives:

Four would be entirely BRT, considered to be the lowest-cost mode, ranging from $800 million to $1.1 billion, and one that can operate on existing surface streets. According to MTA planners, BRT has generally lower reliability and passenger capacity (40 to 110 riders) and more frequent, closer stops than light and heavy rail.

Two other options would be entirely light rail. (Alternative 6 may look familiar, as MTA’s planners have pointed out that it most closely resembles the Red Line with its 14-mile, 19-stop route running between Woodlawn and Bayview.) This mode choice brings higher construction costs ranging from $3.1 billion to $3.8 billion, but would offer faster service and greater volumes with 60 to 175 riders, MTA planners said.

Yet another option, Alternative 3, would incorporate heavy rail from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Edmondson Village and switch to BRT between Edmondson Village and Ellicott City in Howard County. This proposal, which would require tunneling, is the most costly at $4.2 billion and would operate much of its 19 miles underground. It would also have higher dependability and frequency of service and capacity for 70 to 190 passengers.

Other details MTA’s team is considering: Should a new east-west line have a longer route between Ellicott City and Essex, or a shorter length between Woodlawn and Bayview? Should it bypass the Inner Harbor in favor of the central business district, or travel a more southerly waterfront path? Should it replace traffic lanes with a whole “transit street” on blocks of Baltimore Street, or run along the underused Highway to Nowhere to the north? Over east, should it move north of Patterson Park on a straight shot to Hopkins Hospital, or southward through popular neighborhoods and job centers like Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton?

View east along U.S. Route 40 (former Interstate 170) from the overpass for U.S. Route 1 northbound (North Fulton Avenue) in Baltimore City, Maryland

MTA spent two months collecting public responses to these questions and more this summer, with a public comment period that ended Aug. 1. Alvaro Sifuentes, a consulting project engineer with the state’s RTP team, said in June that an analysis already determined each of the seven alternatives would draw more than enough ridership to support frequent daily transit service, improve travel times and reliability compared to the existing BaltimoreLink bus system, and reach “transit-critical populations.”

One of the most pressing concerns is the price tag. Per the MTA’s matrix of options, any rail line costs roughly three- or even fourfold what BRT does, given the extensive work of adding a fixed guideway, and would take at least several years longer to build.

Therein lies a key perk of BRT: It’s nimbler from the start, offering generally lower costs, speedier construction, and potential for future expansions given that its base infrastructure — the road — already exists. A growing list of cities — from Albany, New York, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Birmingham, Alabama — have gone the route of investing in BRT recent years, finding ready streams of federal aid and fewer implementation roadblocks than with light rail plans.

Some residents who have reviewed the MTA’s seven alternatives noticed the agency is leaning into BRT, having incorporated it fully or partially into five of its seven routes.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Collin Hayward, a civil engineer who heads the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association’s transportation committee. “On one hand, we get that BRT is easier to implement. It’s less of the costs upfront, and you can still do it right — you can still give it dedicated right-of-way, you can still get pre-paid boarding.”

But, he adds, “we don’t want bad BRT. We want real BRT. If it’s gonna be done, it’s gotta be done right.”

Skeptics of the mode have said BRT systems often amount to little more than glorified bus systems that only marginally improve service compared to conventional buses, and also do less to incentivize transit-oriented development around new stations.

When not properly executed with signal priority or sufficient separation from traffic, BRT’s efficiency depends on the state of traffic. Some attendees at the June meetings were worried the state would simply add more painted bus-only lanes or similar steps that do not fully protect buses from impeding traffic.

But planners have sought to assuage those concerns, pointing to peer examples like Richmond’s GRTC Pulse system (whose traffic-integrated setup has drawn both praise and criticism). In an interview, MTA Administrator Holly Arnold assured any BRT proposal from Baltimore would be protected from traffic with its own dedicated right of way.

“Absolutely, dedicated right-of-way is key to all of the alternatives and alignments that we’re studying,” she said.

Still, for some Baltimoreans, it’s just not a promising option to invest close to $1 billion and more than half a decade for build-out when heavier-duty options are on the table. They point to light and heavy rail’s clearest advantage for users: those systems run trains separate from the road with fewer stops in between, higher frequency and greater promise to attract transit-oriented development nearby.

“I would much rather have a system that’s gonna reach the most people than have something that’s gonna be a quick fix to what’s happening right now,” said Shirlene Littlejohn, a homeowner in Uplands on Edmondson, in favor of a rail-based system.

Many bus riders also remain underwhelmed by the Hogan administration’s $135 million BaltimoreLink bus system reboot, which has failed to increase ridership or address prolonged issues of behind-schedule or no-show buses.

Joseph Jones, founder and president of the Center for Urban Families in West Baltimore, has witnessed how buses’ unreliability affects parents who don’t drive, in particular. His organization’s clients have missed work shifts or parole hearings, or have been unable to get to their child’s school for a medical emergency.

“When we put all of our chips on wheels, I just don’t know that that makes a lot of sense,” he said. “What we fundamentally need is a modern rail system that allows us to operate in a 21st century fashion.”

Seeking a revival

“I’m not even gonna look. It’s futile for me to even look at it. It’s insanity,” said Minister Glenn Smith, vice president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, of the east-west proposals. The Sandtown-Winchester resident bears the emotional scars of racist transportation planning in Baltimore — his family was uprooted from Lauretta Avenue in 1969 for construction of the Highway to Nowhere. “We don’t need another study, we know what’s needed along that corridor.”

For the last several years, BTEC has been setting up at farmer’s markets, bus stops and elsewhere to boost its “bring back the Red Line” cause. Samuel Jordan, the organization’s president, said reviving the project “is simpler than people might think” and wouldn’t require a whole new study process like the one MTA is undertaking.

Maryland’s next governor could tell the federal transportation department the state wants to bring the project back. State and federal officials would reevaluate the 2012 environmental impact study and decide if it needs updating. Federal officials could then reissue their 2013 approval and the city could apply for a federal grant to help pay for construction.

While the MTA’s proposals include one that’s a mirror image of the Red Line, BTEC doesn’t believe the agency is pushing that option in good faith.

Jordan argues the agency shouldn’t even be deciding on the fate of Baltimore transit at this point after years of what he alleges were racist policy decisions by MTA. Examples include Hogan’s 2015 cancellation of the Red Line, the subsequent BaltimoreLink overhaul that has left many bus riders wanting and years of deferred maintenance for the existing Baltimore subway system.

“The reign of race-based transit policy at MDOT MTA never stops,” he said. MTA did not respond to requests for response to Jordan.

To that end, the organization is pursuing what Jordan called “structural change,” collecting signatures to put a potentially transformative governance question before Baltimore voters in November.

If approved, the referendum would amend the city’s charter to create a new regional transit agency with a commission representing Baltimore City and surrounding counties, as well as transit riders. This structure, common in other metro areas, would effectively transfer the state’s outsized authority over transportation projects — which allowed for Hogan’s Red Line veto — to a more locally rooted, interjurisdictional body.

BTEC last month announced it had collected the 10,000 signatures needed for a ballot referendum. Assuming the signatures can be verified and the phrasing is approved, in November voters could be deciding whether to support the creation of a regional transit authority. Baltimore’s City Council would still need to amend the city charter to create the regional transit authority itself, and other jurisdictions would have to agree to participate.

Even though advocates tout the Red Line as having been shovel-ready eight years ago, the plan was imperfect. Beyond public pushback — a hallmark of urban transit projects — to construction in some west and east side communities, ballooning costs pushed the price of a planned tunnel through downtown, which would have been close to the existing MetroSubway, to roughly $1.5 billion. That created a $280 million deficit, which Baltimore City and Baltimore County later committed to covering.

Nearly a decade later, it’s It’s unknown how much of the planning previously completed for the Red Line would carry over to a new project.

The state still has a handful of properties purchased for the proposed route’s right-of-way, MTA officials said, though much of the property would need to be acquired.

Federal law may require the state to update its environmental study.

And with the federal infrastructure bill doubling the pool for federal transportation department’s Capital Investments Grants — which includes funding for major transit projects — some question whether the state should rehash the previous Red Line application if it could be collecting new data.

“If we are looking at different alignments with different stations and stops, you need to do the proper analysis and check off all the boxes,” said Lang with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. “It is very frustrating how long it takes, but if you’re looking for transportation investments to the magnitude that we’re talking about, you really need to put forth a strong case.”

Political stakes

The advocacy push for the 2015 Red Line plan clearly maintains a critical mass of political support among members of Congress and, perhaps most importantly, Maryland’s potential next governor. Meanwhile, the MTA’s study of proposals is carrying out the arduous technical work required for any major new transit planning effort.

Both efforts can support the transit advocacy cause, said Brian O’Malley, a planner and executive director of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, which advocates for improving transportation infrastructure in the region.

“I don’t believe anybody right now knows exactly how much can be done between sheer political will, and how much technical stuff has to happen, but I think we need both,” he said. “I view this alternatives analysis as one thing that we can be doing right now to be as ready as possible, but the biggest thing we need is a governor who wants to do it.”

That could line up soon as well.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox has not taken a clear position on funding more transit for Baltimore — The Banner has reached out to his campaign for comment — but his voter base is heavily rural and Cox’s Trump-endorsed platform does not mention transportation. Moore — the favorite to win the governor’s race in November, given Maryland’s more than two-to-one proportion of Democrats to Republicans — includes transit-oriented development as a priority in his platform, and said in a Banner questionnaire that he is “committed to ensuring that the Red Line is built and connected to other forms of transportation.”

If the Democrat can secure a win this November, it would be the first time in eight years that Baltimore would have allies in local, state and federal government who support a 21st century transit system for the city. That’s cause for cautious optimism among transit advocates who have long been waiting for Baltimore to build itself around transit.

“I’m convinced we want to make Baltimore successful, not walk away from it,” O’Malley said. “We already sunk investment into the Metro Subway and the central light rail, and we don’t realize the full potential benefit of those until we make them into a network. It’s sort of like going from 2D to 3D.”

Correction

This story has been updated to correct that Wes Moore is a resident of Baltimore, not a native.

Ethan McLeod is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist.

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