Baltimore’s future Red Line will feature light rail trains, not rapid buses, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said Thursday.

Moore revived planning for the east-west transit line last year, and officials have been studying potential routes and what mode of transportation it would be.

”This is a huge step forward and a continued commitment to the people of the state,” Moore said.

The Democratic governor spoke to The Baltimore Banner ahead of an official announcement in East Baltimore planned for Friday.

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Moore said the light rail line emerged as the best choice during outreach events that involved “thousands” of people in the Baltimore region. Residents, businesses and commuters expressed a strong preference for rail over rapid bus.

”It just became very clear that this is the mode of transportation that we were going to select,” Moore said, adding that the decision followed “a hyper-informed engagement process that we’ve had with folks.”

File photo of MTA light rail trains. (Maryland Transit Administration via X/Twitter)

The proposed expansion of light rail — which was canceled by former Gov. Larry Hogan, then revived by Moore after he took office — would carry passengers from Woodlawn in western Baltimore County to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in East Baltimore. It would be the first major transit expansion in Baltimore in decades. While other cities have expanded their rail networks, Baltimore hasn’t kept up, and many area riders who depend on public transit have complained about an ineffective system.

Officials said the decision was not just reflective of public sentiment, but was data driven. Roughly three-quarters of those surveyed by the MTA through public outreach last year expressed a strong preference for rail over buses, the agency said.

“We have needed the project for a really long time,” said Maryland Transit Administrator Holly Arnold. The results of data modeling using software endorsed by the Federal Transit Administration showed light rail was the far better option, both because it would attract new riders to the system and is more cost-effective per passenger, she said.

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Many in Baltimore viewed rapid buses as a second-tier option for the Red Line, said Del. Stephanie Smith, a Democrat who chairs the city’s delegation in Annapolis.

The perception is particularly clear compared to the Purple Line light rail project in the Washington, D.C., suburbs that’s under construction, she said. Some may have questioned why one part of the state would get a rail project, while Baltimore would get buses.

”It would be so insulting to only offer bus rapid transit and it would not necessarily close the gaps around reliability and connectivity,” she said. A “very robust transportation system” is vital for the city and the region to thrive, she said.

Smith said she’s eager for the next step of picking the exact route for the Red Line, hopeful that the line will spur economic development around stops in disinvested neighborhoods.

Though light rail will cost more up-front than a rapid bus line, Moore said he’s confident that Maryland will be able to line up significant federal funding to help with those costs. He said the Biden Administration is “very supportive” of the project. And in the long run, Moore said, the Red Line will spur economic activity such as transit-oriented development projects and help Baltimoreans get to school and work quickly and more easily. The Red Line is a component of a “larger Baltimore Renaissance” that’s taking place, said Moore, who considers the city to be his adopted hometown.

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The Maryland Transit Administration is relaunching the planning process for the proposed Red Line east-west route in Baltimore.
The corridor of the future Red Line is shown on a MDOT map. The specific route hasn’t been finalized. (Graphic by the Maryland Transit Administration)

In an interview, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld called the planned announcement a momentum builder that’s “great for the future of Baltimore.” It comes as Amtrak is moving ahead with a new passenger rail tunnel beneath West Baltimore and federal officials are preparing to make improvements to the Howard Street freight rail tunnel.

“I think we’re on the precipice of this region taking off in so many ways,” Wiedefeld said.

The decision was first reported Thursday afternoon by The Daily Record.

Friday’s announcement may help quell the worst fears of transit advocates still scarred by Hogan’s 2015 decision to cancel a previous iteration of the Red Line. Planners had spent years preparing to build a new downtown tunnel that Red Line trains would use. But Hogan called the project a “wasteful boondoggle” and returned $900 million in federal money while redirecting $736 million in state funds to other counties.

Hogan, a Republican who is now running for an open U.S. Senate seat, had pledged as a gubernatorial candidate to cancel it. Moore similarly pledged during his 2022 campaign to revive it.

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At a press event a year ago, Moore called the project’s cancellation by his predecessor a “tragedy.”

A board that explains the measures of effectiveness of various Red Line options is shown at a Red Line open house at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s SMC Campus Center on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

The agency predicts the project will cost $3.2 billion to $7.2 billion to build.

It would be cheaper and faster to create an aboveground system in which trains operated on Pratt or Baltimore streets. But those trains, once operational, would take longer to get from one end of the 14-mile-long line to the other than if the MTA were to build a new downtown tunnel. The MTA plans to finalize its preferred specific route and announce it before the end of the year.

How to pay for the Red Line is far from set, but the delays and cost overruns of the Purple Line loom over the MTA’s newest project. Critics say the public-private partnership formed to build it, greenlighted by Hogan, became a mess and has gone billions over budget.

The Red Line “is a project that we will manage totally different and frame totally different than that [the Purple Line] was to make sure that a budget is very clearly defined, a schedule very clearly defined and that we can meet it,” Wiedefeld said.

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A lengthy timeline sits between Friday’s announcement and trains getting rolling.

Allison Scott, project lead for the Red Line, said her team plans to move the project into the Federal Transit Administration’s pipeline by early next year. From there, officials will have a maximum of two years to complete enough design and engineering to apply for large construction grants. Groundbreaking could be in late 2026 or 2027.

The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a transit advocacy and research organization, applauded the state’s decision to go with light rail. The group is urging Moore and the MTA to move forward with an option that includes a new downtown tunnel, arguing it would provide the best service across a corridor that desperately needs better transit access.

”We need the Moore administration to act decisively to fund this project and get shovels in the ground as soon as possible,” said Brian O’Malley, the group’s president and CEO, in a statement.

The planned Red Line would complement the MTA’s 32-year-old, north-south light rail line from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie, and Baltimore’s 41-year-old Metro system connecting Owings Mills with downtown. Last December, the MTA had to abruptly suspend service on the light rail due to mechanical issues that raised safety concerns. The MTA provided shuttle buses between rail stations to riders until the issues were resolved.

The shutdown laid bare issues with ongoing rehabilitation work for the aging light rail fleet. Some of those rail cars have already reached their estimated 30-year useful lifespan.

The MTA secured more than $200 million earlier this year to help pay to replace its light rail fleet, but the current rail cars will need to last for years, until the new ones roll into town. The agency will pursue a total of 90 rail cars instead of the 55 needed to replace its current fleet because it will have two lines to equip.

“As much as I wish we were riding the Red Line today, the timing does work out fairly well in that as we’re looking to replace our light rail fleet, we can do a joint procurement for the Red Line and have vehicles that look the same, feel the same, and again, really kind of hone in on that interconnected system,” Arnold said.

Baltimore’s east-west axis was identified as a high-need transit corridor decades ago. The Red Line was part of a 2002 comprehensive rail plan for the Baltimore region that included multiple new lines to complement the current light rail and subway systems. However, the Red Line was the only part of the plan to move forward after being greenlighted in 2009 by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat. Canceled in 2015, now it’s back on track.

Del. Marc Korman, who chairs the House Environment and Transportation Committee, wrote in a text that he was glad the project is moving forward before taking aim at Hogan’s history with the the Red Line project. “I hope we have a senator in Congress to help re-secure the federal funding for it that Candidate Hogan turned down when he canceled the project nine years ago,” the Montgomery County Democrat wrote.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott called the announcement a “message to residents that Baltimore is once again a priority.”

“The time for talk is over and the time to actually move forward with a plan that works for all Baltimoreans is here,” Scott said. “The choice to pursue a light rail system, which is already a proven and beloved part of Baltimore’s public transportation network, is the right one.”