MTA Administrator Holly Arnold didn’t mince words. With information panels proudly displayed around an expansive exhibition room, Arnold acknowledged that she’s gotten a clear answer to the question of what many Baltimoreans want the future Red Line to be.

“There’s a strong preference for light rail” over Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, Arnold said, taking a break from mingling with Baltimore residents inside the University of Maryland’s downtown School of Nursing building.

But there are tradeoffs for all of the options for the proposed transit line, Arnold continued. Light rail takes longer to build, for example, but buses won’t draw as many riders. With fresh data modeling that offered projections for all of these possibilities, Arnold and her team wanted more resident feedback about which metric(s) mattered the most to riders.

A board explaining the measures of effectiveness matrix at the Maryland Transit Administration’s 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 presented the projected levels of effectiveness that compare cost, ridership and other metrics for the light rail and BRT options along three different alignments. Most meeting attendees who spoke with The Banner expressed a clear preference for light rail over BRT. Here are some common themes that have emerged from public meetings for what Baltimore residents want from its next transit service.

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Reliability, access, connectivity

Khaliq Rodriguez and Stephon Lynch’s household is among the thousands of zero-car households that the Red Line is projected to serve. The McElderry Park residents believe that not having a car has helped them find the charm in the city they began calling home last year — walking most places and talking with people creates more community than sitting alone in a car, they said. But as they both commute to Washington, D.C.. for work, they know that a reliable and fast ride to the West Baltimore MARC station would make their workday lives easier.

“The buses are not frequent enough in the morning,” said Rodriguez, whose choice of MARC or Amtrak is often dependent upon which bus can get him to Penn Station or the West Baltimore MARC station the fastest. Sometimes the answer is neither, he explained, and he’ll opt for a rentable e-scooter despite the higher cost.

Stephon Lynch, left, and Khaliq Rodriguez, center, look at the Maryland Transit Administration’s data projections and plan for the six Red Line alternatives during an open house at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s SMC Campus Center on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“We definitely don’t want to hear about building a BRT when y’all can’t even run the [current] buses on time and you cancel them,” he said. “You gotta flag a bus down like a taxi.”

“Last-mile” connection was also on the minds of Beth and Nick Allen, Woodlawn residents who attended the first open house of the series on the Red Line at Woodlawn High School. Connecting Baltimore City with eastern and western Baltimore County is a huge plus of the project, the Allens thought, but their home would still be a couple of miles from the closest station. They hope that a shuttle service or another creative solution would improve access to future transit stations.

The Allens were disappointed when former Gov. Larry Hogan, whom they voted for, scrapped the Red Line back in 2015. The plan was revived by the state’s new Democratic governor, Wes Moore.

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“For younger people today, a lot of them are electing never to buy a car, they just don’t want a car, they don’t want the headaches of having a car, and they want to live somewhere that is walkable, bikable, that you can jump on a bus, jump on a train, get into the city and have a good time, safely, and get back home,” said Beth Allen.

“It’s our neighborhood in Woodlawn that’s less appealing to younger people — 20-somethings, 30-somethings — because we don’t have the mass transit service,” Allen said. “When we were that age, a car was absolutely necessary.”

Build time

Ian and Guinevere Wolfe of Highlandtown, who circled the info boards at the Greektown Square & Event Center pushing a double stroller carrying their 2-year-old and 9-month-old, thought about how their kids might one day use the Red Line to get to school. With construction estimated to take six to 12 years, the young family, like the Allens, knows that the Red Line considerations are about investing in future generations.

“I’d love to be able to take the train downtown with my kids,” said Guinevere Wolfe, mentioning the Aquarium, the Science Center and other kid-friendly places she’d like to visit with them someday. “As a parent, I’m thinking about those amenities.”

And in Ian Wolfe’s experience, more space makes traveling with a stroller easier on a light rail car than on a bus.

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The down side is that a light rail line will take longer to build than a BRT, albeit just by about a year on average.

Merry Heidorn and her husband, new Canton homeowners who recently relocated from Montgomery County, look at their former county’s Purple Line as a cautionary tale for Baltimore. Construction for the 16-mile east-west light rail line that will ultimately extend from Bethesda to New Carrollton across the Washington, D.C., suburb has faced extensive delays and cost increases, in part because of the intricacies of its funding structure as a P-3, or public-private partnership.

Light rail or bus ultimately isn’t that important to Heidorn, though — as long as the Red Line connects with other transit lines and makes getting around the city easier, she’ll be happy. And most important in her eyes is to slow down the wild traffic on Boston Street — Heidorn and her husband moved to Baltimore for a more walkable community.

And what about if she knew the state might be digging one end of a tunnel for the project in the neighborhood? “I’d still buy the house,” she said.

Feedback from community members fills a proposed Red Line map during an MTA open house at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s SMC Campus Center on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Yolanda Jackson lives in another zero-car household — the lifelong Baltimorean describes her Harlem Park neighborhood as “a bit of a desert.”

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“There’s no grocery store, there’s no retail, so it makes it a little hard because I’m a zero-car household to get things that I need,” said Jackson.

And that makes getting the Red Line done quickly a priority for her. Though all BRT options are projected to draw fewer riders than their light rail counterparts, she was impressed to learn that BRT would include a dedicated guideway, which she considers a significant improvement over current dedicated bus lanes that continue to fill with cars.

“This service is something that I would need quickly, right? So [BRT is] easier to build, it could be implemented quicker,” she said.

Jackson’s 10-year-old daughter, Imani, also came out to the open house and expressed excitement about the project. “I probably would ride this everyday, so I’m glad it’s a faster way of transportation other than Ubers or waiting for the bus for 100 million years,” she said.

Imani mainly turned out to get answers to her questions around safety, deforestation and gentrification. Asked if she was considering entering next year’s race to lead Baltimore, Imani replied, “I don’t think so, I don’t think people would be happy with an 11-year-old mayor.”

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Resident and 10-year-old Imani leaves feedback on a proposed Red Line map during an MTA open house at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s SMC Campus Center on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Where does the Red Line go from here?

With public meetings done, the team will go back to the lab to compile stakeholder input and arrive at its final, state-preferred alternative.

Allison Scott, the project lead for the Red Line, said that presenting a plan with one clear route is critical in preparing an application for the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grants Program (CIG), a highly competitive discretionary grant program.

But to get there, she said, her team will need to work fast — submitting for a CIG means they need to complete a route by the spring. “It’s fast, but we have lots of good work that was done previously that gives us that leg up, and everybody that’s working on the project is excited about it,” said Scott. “So we’re all putting in the extra time and the effort because we’re all really pushing for this to succeed.”

Scott added that the “mixing and matching” of different components of the alternatives is on the table, too.

“We’re really excited to move this project forward,” said Arnold. “No matter what decision we make, it’s going to be transformative for the region.”

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.