Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott sported a red T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Red Line.” Holly Arnold, the administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration, showed up in a red dress.

And when Gov. Wes Moore delivered the words that those gathered wanted to hear — “The new Baltimore Red Line will run on light rail transit” — the red-dressed crowd erupted in applause.

“This is a day we will celebrate for generations to come,” Moore said outside Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Moore made it official at the ceremony Friday morning — the planned transit line linking East and West Baltimore, scuttled by former Gov. Larry Hogan but revived by the Democratic governor — would be a light rail line, not rapid bus lanes.

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“Today’s announcement shows that the time for talk is over and the time to actually move forward with a plan that works for all Baltimoreans is here,” Scott declared.

But while Moore, Scott and other officeholders were celebrating the light rail decision as an important milestone, they acknowledged it will be a long road to opening the roughly 14-mile line.

It would be the first expansion of Baltimore’s disparate transit network in decades. Critics call it a waste of money. Supporters say it’s needed more than ever to connect people to jobs, spur growth and keep residents living in the city.

State Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said his team is three to four years away from beginning construction. Before that happens, planners will need to decide whether the project will include a tunnel under downtown, as originally envisioned, or be entirely aboveground.

Officials also have to secure funding for a project estimated to cost $3.2 billion to $7.2 billion. State officials say President Joe Biden’s administration and Maryland’s U.S. senators are supportive, but the White House and Congress could be in for a shakeup after November’s general election.

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Meanwhile, the state faces a major shortfall of transportation funding over the next five years, driven in part by the need to meet its obligations to Washington’s Metro system and to pay for the coming Purple Line in the D.C. suburbs.

Even in a best-case scenario, Baltimoreans are seven years or more away from boarding a Red Line train.

A man wearing a red t-shirt that says "REDLINE" smiles and takes a selfie with a woman in a parking lot.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said that the 2015 cancellation of the Red Line had a crippling effect on the city. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

“We also know that we could and we should be celebrating [today] instead with a ribbon-cutting,” said Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr., a Democrat who is running for Congress.

Former Gov. Martin O’Malley greenlighted the Red Line 15 years ago, but Hogan canceled the project and returned $900 million in federal money while redirecting $736 million in state funds to other counties.

Moore said the Red Line is more than an opportunity but an obligation to propel economic development and keep Baltimore competitive with other cities. Construction alone, he said, would bring 5,000 jobs and $10 billion in economic activity.

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“The Red Line will reverse economic struggle and provide Marylanders with the freedom to connect to jobs and opportunity from East to West Baltimore,” said Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller, a former transportation engineer.

To dig or not to dig

The next major milestone will be selecting a route — the MTA is considering three main alignments. Though the finalized route could be a mix and match of each, the big question is whether the trains will run entirely on the surface.

The old Red Line plan included a multi-mile tunnel underneath downtown. Building that tunnel, which would go from just north of the Poppleton neighborhood in West Baltimore to Boston Street in Canton, is still on the table.

A proposed map of the Red Line, called Maximum Tunnel. (MDOT MTA)
A proposed map of the Red Line — one of three possible routes — called Maximum tunnel. (MDOT MTA)

Some of the Red Line’s biggest supporters want to see it happen.

This year, the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, which has long pushed for the Red Line, held a downtown rally urging the state to speed up the project. Friday morning, BTEC President Samuel Jordan applauded the selection of light rail, saying it would bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in additional development. He also urged the administration to build the tunnel.

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He wrote in an email that light rail via a tunnel “will factor more efficiently in the future build-out of a multi-modal, regional, transit system anchored by light rail.” He added, “A surface LRT downtown will generate delayed commutes, congestion, and confusion.”

Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, leads a Red Line light rail rally in downtown in February. (Julia Reihs/The Baltimore Banner)

The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance is also pushing for a tunnel, saying it would improve speed, reliability and access to more places.

Klaus Philipsen, an architect who worked on the current north-south light rail line and was a member of the original Red Line consulting team, said a tunnel is the best option not just for future riders but those traversing downtown on foot or by car. He urged a close connection with a downtown Metro station “so we can finally create connectivity for the rail systems we have.”

Not everyone, however, is sold on the tunnel — or on light rail.

“Once again, the MTA has shown how unimaginative they are in dusting off and reusing a plan that’s too slow, too expensive and not phased,” said Jonathan Sacks, one of the minds behind “Smart Line,” a proposal to expand Baltimore’s Metro.

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His biggest knock against building a tunnel: Downtown already has one and doesn’t use it enough. The Metro subway system’s tunnel, which a light rail wouldn’t be able to use, runs under downtown from State Center to Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was designed so it could be expanded.

The MTA ruled out Metro expansion for the Red Line, citing the high cost. But Sacks thinks the idea that the federal government will help fund a new tunnel, estimated to cost billions of dollars, is dead in the water. He thinks all signs point toward an aboveground light rail line.

“Big trains don’t belong on crowded city streets waiting at red lights,” he said.

Some point to the existing light rail line’s low speeds on Howard Street to argue that a surface option is a nonstarter. The MTA has said new traffic signaling technology can help trains and cars coexist but that its own data modeling shows building a tunnel would significantly improve the Red Line’s speed.

High price tag

Tunnel or not, Moore is moving forward with a multibillion-dollar rail project at a time when the state’s transportation budget faces a large hole, largely because of inflation and declining gas tax revenues.

Moore shored up the transportation budget this fiscal year with $150 million from the state’s rainy day fund. But operating budgets for the MTA, State Highway Administration or big capital projects could face the chopping block over the next couple of years if the state can’t find more money.

A close up image of three people wearing red t-shirts that say "RED LINE" and ""
The administration of Gov. Wes Moore is proposing the 14-plus-mile, east-west Red Line be a light rail. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

State lawmakers this year made small moves such as raising the cost to register electric vehicles. The public-private TRAIN commission is examining other potential revenue options.

In an emailed press release, Hogan’s campaign — he is now running for the U.S. Senate — said Friday’s announcement will mean new taxes that will be “even bigger and far more crushing for Maryland families who are already struggling with high prices.”

“With the transportation budget facing bankruptcy, today’s announcement also puts at risk priority projects across the entire state,” the statement continued. “Now more than ever, Marylanders need someone fighting for their pocketbooks.”

If all goes to plan, the MTA can apply for construction money through a New Starts grant from the Federal Transit Administration in a couple of years. But it will take hundreds of millions of dollars in planning and design work to get there.

Moore is confident the Biden administration will see the Red Line as a priority. He thanked Maryland’s congressional leaders Friday for ensuring the transit project can “move to the front of the line.”

A man in a suit and tie is talking at a podium as a woman and another man in a suit and tie stand behind him.
Gov. Wes Moore, standing with Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller and Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr., responds to questions Friday after announcing the east-west Red Line will be a light rail. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

But coming up with the state match will be a tall order. State Del. Mark Edelson, a Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said Moore and state lawmakers will need to partner to get it done. The Red Line carries a big price tag, he acknowledged, but it’s also an investment.

“And so what is the return on investment? It’s going to be the jobs, it’s the growth, it’s the impact on the city and the whole region,” Edelson said.

Scott said the 2015 cancellation of the Red Line had a crippling effect on Baltimore. Building the Red Line would propel economic development and keep Baltimore competitive with other cities, said Moore, who has called Baltimore his adopted hometown.

Moore understands the cynicism — he even conceded that he feels some of it. But he pledged to “walk every step of the way” with the community.

“We will get it done, and it will be the right thing for the people of this city and the right thing for the people of this state,” Moore said.

The story has been updated to correct the spelling of State Del. Mark Edelson's name.