Maryland Gov. Wes Moore relaunched the effort to build an east-west transit line across Baltimore, promising on Thursday that he would reverse the “tragedy” of the 2015 cancellation of the Red Line that set the city back in its revitalization efforts.
The decision eight years ago to end the Red Line planning, the Democratic governor said, “was not just about a transit line.”
“It was very clear and a message was sent that Baltimore was not going to be a priority,” Moore said, speaking to an appreciative crowd gathered on a hot afternoon at the West Baltimore MARC station.
He added: “We say with one voice: Now is the time that we are going to get this right.”
Moore’s announcement is the first of several steps in a multiyear process that will need to take place before any rider will be able to hop on a transit line between Woodlawn on the west side of Baltimore County to the Bayview area in the city’s southeast corner. Officials will need to work out the exact route of the line, whether to use buses or trains, and how to cobble together funding for what’s estimated to be a multibillion-dollar project.
State transportation officials won’t forecast a best-case scenario for getting the route in place, though the governor has pledged to get it done while he’s in office, which would be 7 1/2 years from now if he wins a second term.
“We’re going to move with the urgency that this moment does require,” Moore said in an interview after the announcement. “If we can put everything in place, we’ll be able to begin construction in 2026, 2027, and we’re going to move as fast as humanly possible to be able to complete this.”
Despite the unknowns, a series of leaders — from a neighborhood association president to U.S. senator — were eager to champion Moore’s pledge to get the project back on track. Red T-shirts and white handheld fans emblazoned with “REDLINE” in all capital letters were handed out.
Righting a ‘catastrophic disinvestment’
The multibillion-dollar Red Line has been considered for more than two decades, a vital expansion of Baltimore’s fractured transit system that includes one north-south light rail line, one subway line from the northwest suburbs to downtown, and a network of buses that crisscross the region. Amtrak and MARC commuter trains run through Baltimore’s Penn Station, which is being expanded and modernized.
The Red Line’s route has been envisioned as stretching from the western suburbs in Baltimore County across the city and ending on the east side, filling a gap in the transit network.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were committed to the project by both the state and the federal government, but then-Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, pulled the plug on the plans in 2015. He called it a “wasteful boondoggle.”
When Hogan made that move, Maryland forfeited $900 million in federal money that was set aside for the project. And Hogan redirected state money for the Red Line to highway projects in the suburbs and rural communities.
The cancellation of the Red Line was a blow to supporters, who said the project would make Baltimore thrive. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and others filed a complaint that the cancellation and funding switch amounted to a civil rights violation, but that was dismissed.
Multiple speakers at Thursday’s relaunch event blasted Hogan’s 2015 decision, though none mentioned him by name. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott called the former governor “He Who Shall Not Be Named.” (That’s a reference to Voldemort, the villain in the Harry Potter books and movies.)
“We all know that when the decision was made to cancel this billion-dollar transit expansion for our community, it was a deliberate and catastrophic disinvestment into our great city,” said Scott, a Democrat. “It was a massive loss for the entire region.”
Scott also reminded the crowd that when the Red Line money was redirected to road projects outside of Baltimore, the city was nowhere to be found on a map of highway projects Hogan presented. “Not only was the project taken away from us, we were literally taken off the map,” Scott said.
The frustration over the 2015 Red Line cancellation remains potent for many leaders in Baltimore. Had the project proceeded according to plan, it might have been up and running by now, some believe.
Cynthia Shaw spent 13 years advocating for the Red Line on behalf of the Lyndhurst community in West Baltimore, where she’s president of the neighborhood association
“I cannot believe that this is happening. What a wonderful day in the neighborhood!” Shaw said to applause. A regular transit rider, Shaw said she knows “the horrors” of the current system.
Moore pledged during the 2022 gubernatorial campaign to restart the Red Line project.
In campaign materials, Moore wrote that the Purple Line extension of the D.C. Metro system and Baltimore’s Red Line would be “built quickly, cost-effectively, and with community input on stops, disruptions, and impact on local businesses.”
And in The Baltimore Banner’s Voter Guide, Moore wrote: “As governor, I am committed to ensuring that the Red Line is built and connected to other forms of transportation.” He told a Bloomberg News reporter that the plan was to get the Red Line completed while he’s in office.
In his first budget, Moore proposed setting aside $500 million in unassigned money for future transportation projects, such as the Red Line. State lawmakers whittled that down to $100 million, saying that would be enough seed money for now to get the project going.
Transportation officials plan to tap that $100 million to update an environmental impact statement for the Red Line that’s required for the project to go forward.
Lining up for dollars
The Red Line will need to compete against transit projects in other cities across the nation for a limited pool of federal dollars. President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed in 2021, could be one source of funds.
“We have to line up for dollars. We’re going to be competing with other properties across the country,” state Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said in an interview. “We’re getting it lined up so that we can, in late 2024, be in a position where we can compete for those dollars.”
Transportation officials will simultaneously update the environmental study and apply to the federal government’s Capital Investment Grants Program for transit projects, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation. They plan to kick off the project this summer with public education and outreach sessions.
The price tag likely will run into the billions of dollars, as the original plan was a $2.9 billion project. As with the previous plan, the cost of building the Red Line would be paid for by a combination of state, federal and local government dollars, transportation officials said.
Both of Maryland’s U.S. senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, were in West Baltimore Thursday to promise to do their best to get funding for the Red Line. They noted a provision they got inserted into an infrastructure law will make it easier to restart the federal approval process for projects that previously were in the works, such as the Red Line. Van Hollen called it the “keep the Red Line alive” provision.
Cardin said that not only are the Baltimore region’s representatives on Capitol Hill on board, but “you have a funding partner in the Biden administration.”
And the Biden administration was present at the event, too, with Christopher Coes, an assistant U.S. secretary of transportation telling the crowd that the Red Line is the type of transit project that the president wants to see funded.
“You can count on the federal government to be with you all the way,” he said.
With “a lot of work done” already on the Red Line, Wiedefeld said the new environmental study will build on the existing plans. The initial environmental impact statement was completed more than a decade ago in 2012 and accepted by the federal government in 2013.
In working off the existing study, Maryland officials will be focusing on the Red Line path that was considered at that time: A 14-mile route from Woodlawn in western Baltimore County across to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in the southeast corner of Baltimore City.
Under that plan, the Red Line was contemplated as a light rail line with two tunnel segments, one on the western edge of the city and the other burrowing under downtown between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Canton.
Wiedefeld said the Moore administration has not finalized what type of technology to use for the Red Line: bus rapid transit, light rail or subway-style heavy rail.
The seven options were presented for public comment last summer. Some involve rapid buses, while others would involve rail. Some options maintained the original route, while others contemplate taking the line to Ellicott City in the west or Essex in the east.
That planning process already “reaffirmed the purpose and need for the original Red Line alignment and there was significant public support for that option,” said Veronica Battisti, a spokesperson for the Maryland Transit Administration.
The state will continue a separate effort to study whether and how to improve transit into eastern Baltimore County, whether through more buses or rail options.
Among those watching the announcement was Aaron Tomarchio, an executive vice president at Tradepoint Atlantic, a former steel mill that’s been turned into a warehouse and transportation hub in Sparrows Point in eastern Baltimore County.
He knows there’s demand for transit out into the county: Once the state launched the 163 bus route between West Baltimore and Sparrows Point, the percentage of workers at Tradepoint who live in West Baltimore shot up.
“The east-west connection is vital to activity in the region,” he said. “This is about getting people to jobs.”
This story has been updated with the correct name for the Capital Investment Grants Program.