Maryland Gov. Wes Moore made a splashy announcement in West Baltimore on Thursday that he’s re-starting the effort to build the Red Line, a transit line that will cross the city from east to west.

The announcement was greeted warmly by political and community leaders still smarting from then-Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to cancel the project and forfeit $900 million in federal money.

A lot has changed since 2015, including development on land along the route and different commuting patterns as the coronavirus pandemic altered how and where people work.

State transportation officials plan to dust off the plans as they were in 2015 — a 14-mile light rail route between Woodlawn and Bayview — and update it to take into account changes over the past eight years. They’ll have to make adjustments to the route, decide whether to stick with light rail or switch to buses, and get in line for federal funding.

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The state’s transportation secretary, Paul Wiedefeld, won’t put a timetable on when the Red Line might actually become a reality. But Moore is hopeful to get the Red Line up and running while he’s still in office, which will be until January 2031 if he wins a second term or January 2027 if he serves only one term.

“The stars are aligned to invest in public transit,” Moore said Thursday. “This is going to happen.”

Here are the steps that Maryland officials will need to take to move the Red Line from concept to reality, according to Wiedefeld and Maryland Transit Administrator Holly Arnold:

Temporary improvements

As the Red Line planning process plays out, the Maryland Transit Administration has plans to make some interim improvements to the bus system for east-west riders.

At the end of summer, the MTA will relaunch an east-west express bus called QuickLink 40, which will run along the existing CityLink blue and orange routes. With more buses and fewer stops, the QuickLink 40 will offer quicker travel times to riders. A previous version of the route was known as Quick Bus 40.

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“It’s recognition we need improvement now,” Arnold said. “Those communities can’t wait, they’ve been waiting long enough.”

Public input

The MTA plans two rounds of public outreach this year, one in July and August and another in October and November.

Officials will both educate Marylanders about the Red Line plans and get feedback for how to adjust the plan. Questions that are raised in the summer meetings will be researched and addressed in the fall meetings.

The public outreach will help identify the “locally preferred alternative,” which is transportation-speak for figuring out the scope of the project, including the best route and whether to use rapid buses or trains.

The Maryland Transit Administration is relaunching the planning process for the proposed Red Line east-west route in Baltimore.
The Maryland Transit Administration is relaunching the planning process for the proposed Red Line east-west route in Baltimore. (Graphic by the Maryland Transit Administration)

Environmental study

The federal government requires what’s known as an “environmental impact study” and the state already has one for the Red Line. The problem? It was finished in 2012 and approved by the feds in 2013.

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Once the decisions are made on how to update the route, the state will create a supplement to the existing environmental impact study to update the plans.

Seeking funding

The Red Line will be expensive, but we don’t know exactly how expensive it will be. The original plan was $2.9 billion.

Whatever the final budget, transportation officials envision combining federal grants, state money and local government money to pay for the project.

The Federal Transit Administration has a pool of money for mass transit projects known as the Capital Investment Grants Programs, which Maryland officials will target as a source of funding.

Ideally, Maryland will be able to put a Red Line application into the Capital Investment Grant Program in late 2024. If the application is successful, officials hope they would get money in the federal government’s fiscal 2026 budget, which covers October 2025 through September 2026.

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One hint that there are good odds for federal funding, at least if President Joe Biden wins re-election in 2024: Christopher Coes, an assistant U.S. secretary of transportation, was at Thursday’s announcement and praised the Red Line. He noted the country has more money available for mass transit projects than ever before.

“There’s been a lot of stops and starts for the project,” Coes said. “While there’s still much work to be done, the determination and optimism around this east-west corridor gives me confidence that we will see this project committed and done in the future.”

But funding could also depend on control of Congress. Republicans have targeted transit funding in the past, including in their proposal earlier this year during debt ceiling negotiations.

The Maryland Transit Administration is relaunching the planning process for the proposed Red Line east-west route in Baltimore.
The Maryland Transit Administration is relaunching the planning process for the proposed Red Line east-west route in Baltimore. (Graphic by the Maryland Transit Administration)

A public-private partnership?

Another option would be to enlist the help of a private company for the Red Line in what’s known as a public-private partnership. In public-private partnerships, a private company bears the up-front cost of building a project in exchange for getting some sort of payment later on, such as through a portion of ticket sales.

The Purple Line that’s under construction as part of the D.C. Metro system is a public-private partnership and has seen construction delays, cost overruns and contractual disputes. And Hogan attempted to use public-private partnerships to add toll lanes to expand highways in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

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Maryland officials haven’t decided whether they’ll entertain the option of a public-private partnership, Wiedefeld said. “We haven’t made any decisions on that,” he said, acknowledging that if the state goes that route, they’ll consider lessons learned from the Purple Line.

Construction

Once the plans are drawn up and funding is lined up, the Red Line has to be built.

In a best-case scenario, construction might begin in 2027, officials said. If they opt for bus rapid transit, less actual construction would be needed. A light rail line would take longer, especially if it involves tunneling, which is part of the existing Red Line proposal.

When might the first riders take a trip on the Red Line? That remains to be seen.

pamela.wood@thebaltimorebanner.com

Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County.

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