The Maryland Transit Administration on Wednesday released projected levels of effectiveness for its six proposed Red Line alternatives, comparing cost, ridership and other metrics for the light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT) options along three different alignments.

The agency employed the Federal Transit Administration’s STOPS program, a data modeling tool that uses Census numbers, current transit ridership levels, and a slew of other data to generate trip and ridership projections for new transit projects. The modeling analysis is “highly recommended” for projects that seek capital funding through certain federal grants, according to MTA administrator Holly Arnold.

Alternative 1, an option that includes a light rail tunnel and that most closely resembles an alignment that was canceled by former Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015, wins out on projected travel time for the east-west corridor, overall ridership and trips from zero-car households. The study estimates a 45-minute, end-to-end trip from western Baltimore County to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, roughly 10 minutes faster than surface alternatives that would forego a tunnel, and as many as 35,500 daily riders.

A proposed map of the Red Line, called Maximum Tunnel. (MDOT MTA)
A proposed map of the Red Line called Maximum Tunnel. (MDOT MTA)

The tradeoff comes with cost and a longer timeline — a light rail tunnel alignment would take nine to 12 years to build and cost as much as $7.2 billion in capital investment, not considering inflation, according to projections.

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Alternatives 1 and 3 each have two tunnels: One that runs from U.S. 40, the so-called “Highway to Nowhere,” to Boston Street in Canton; and a shorter tunnel that begins in Baltimore County and extends to a point west of Edmondson Village.

Two other alternatives — 2A (light rail Surface North) and 2B (light rail Surface South) — would bring the most bang for the MTA’s buck. Although they fall in the middle of the pack for overall upfront cost, they score best at capital cost per trip, $14. Alternative 3, which would include the downtown tunnel but also have bus rapid transit instead of light rail, has the highest capital cost per trip at $26.

Alternative 2A, which would feature surface-level light rail across Baltimore Street/Eastern Avenue and Lombard Street/Fleet Street, scores highest for reaching “transit critical populations” and has the most connections to other rail and bus lines. It is in the middle of the pack when it comes to the construction timeline and cost, but ranks toward the bottom for end-to-end travel time at just under an hour.

“Any of these are going to have enough ridership to justify premium transit investment,” Arnold said in an interview with The Banner on Tuesday. “No matter what decision we make, it’s going to be transformational for the region.”

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The results reflect current population trends, costs and land zoning, but Arnold acknowledged that the projections would change over time. With Monday’s unveiling of plans for future redevelopment at the Inner Harbor and other projects in the pipeline, the east-west corridor could look substantially different by the time the Red Line starts running.

“We’re going to be doing more model runs that look at the horizon years, so going out to say, 2045,” said Arnold. “I think there’s a real opportunity looking at, along the corridor, a TOD [transit-oriented development] … and how we can really focus affordable housing and things like that to make this a super-strong project.”

“The Red Line will have a dramatic, positive impact on communities all along the east-west corridor, and it’s imperative we share ideas and information with residents, officials and stakeholders every step of the way,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld said, according to a Wednesday press release. “Working together, we can make the Red Line a crown jewel of Maryland’s world-class transportation network. I strongly encourage everyone to participate in making that vision a reality.”

Arnold noted that surface-level options offer more access for “transit critical populations” — those more likely to rely on transit as a primary means of transportation — because they would feature more stations than the two tunnel alternatives. The agency also wants to make sure the line connects riders to where current and future jobs are located, though data for this metric was not offered.

The average of the daily ridership projections for the six alternatives works out to between 22,000 and 25,500 daily trips, or between 660,000 and 767,500 monthly rides for any 30-day month. That would be slightly higher than ridership on the existing north-south light rail line during the years leading up to the pandemic and roughly double its current level of ridership.

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This summer, MTA launched QuickLink 40, a tweaked relaunch of the old Quick Bus 40 route that travels roughly the same path as the proposed Red Line. The express service makes fewer stops than most bus lines and goes from Woodlawn to Bayview in right around an hour. In September, the only month with currently available data, the route logged nearly 25,000 riders.

Map of QuickLink 40 express bus route compared to two other bus routes, CityLink Blue and CityLink Orange.
MTA’s new QuickLink 40 will serve as the temporary east-west crosstown connector while Baltimore waits for the future Red Line.

Arnold told The Banner that if BRT is selected and the projected ridership numbers pan out, it would be one of the most successful bus rapid transit systems in the entire country. She was surprised it didn’t perform better in the modeling, though. “It [modeling] is projecting ridership on the rail options [that] is almost double of what we are seeing on the BRT options,” she said.

That ridership gap also struck Brian O’Malley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. Though the CMTA is not endorsing any one alternative, O’Malley said that investing in the Red Line is critical for Baltimore’s future and stressed the importance of building connections to the existing north-south light rail and Metro subway.

“I wish we had built this in 2015 for $2.9 billion. People were concerned about the cost then. Now that seems like a great deal, and we should be riding this now,” said O’Malley. He asked why the Red Line and other transit projects historically have faced resistance because of high costs, yet expensive road and highway expansion has largely continued without oversight.

“We should be going full steam ahead to build this,” he said.

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With so many variables, Arnold thinks the decision will center around one main question: What kind of problem is the state trying to solve?

“[Alternatives] 2B and 1 get down along Boston Street, so there’s more access to jobs down in that area … or the transit-critical populations that you have along Eastern [Avenue] and Fleet [Street], and do we want to think about planned development in those areas? And so as a city and as a region, I think those are conversations that we need to have and that’s the feedback we want from folks,” she said.

“Mixing and matching” of the alternatives is still on the table, too, Arnold said.

“I think the one that I’ve heard the most is that folks really like Pratt Street downtown and then staying on Eastern [Avenue] and Fleet [Street] as you go through the East side. And that is part of the conversation we want to have … if we recognize that there are so many benefits to one particular alignment and you could kind of mix and match.”

Arnold and her staff are asking the public for feedback on these options. Starting Thursday, residents can speak directly with MTA staff and ask their own questions about the projected measures of effectiveness for each of the six alternatives at the following public meetings:

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The MTA hopes to select and finalize a state-recommended alternative in early 2024.

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.

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