By Andy Rosen
Senators are asking the Maryland Transit Administration to go back and look at different options for its three proposed transit lines, two of which are in the early stages of a lengthy quest for federal aid.
When it signed off on Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal last week, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee called for the MTA to re-examine reccmmendations to use “light rail” alignments on the proposed Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington Suburbs.
The committee wants MTA officials to take a look at “heavy rail” alignments for those proposals. Heavy rail is the mode used in the Baltimore Metro Subway, and MTA officials have insisted that it would be too expensive to win crucial federal approval.
But new Federal Transit Administration guidelines from the Obama administration have raised hopes among transit advocates that heavy rail might make more sense, because the consideration has been expanded to include more than just cost effectiveness.
The state has already chosen light rail as the proposal it will submit to the federal government, which it hopes will pay for half of the close to $3 billion cost of the two proposals. A third project, the Corridor Cities Transitway along Interstate 270, is further behind in the process.
The state still hasn’t said how it would come up with its share of the money, but the Senate committee also asked for more information about the plan to finance the projects.
“There’s no money to fund these at this time anyway so by looking at them it certainly give you more time to know what you’re dealing with when you do have money to fund them,” said Sen. James “Ed” DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel.
The new federal rules also take into account factors such as environmental benefit, which advocates say could play in favor of heavy rail, especially for the Red Line.
“That changes the whole situation right there,” said Edward Cohen, a transit advocate in Baltimore who has repeatedly called for a heavy rail system for the East-West rail link and works with the Transit Riders Action Council.
Henry Kay, deputy administrator of the MTA, said he didn’t expect the study to change anything. He said it was “impossible” that the federal government would find a heavy rail alternative suitable for Baltimore. Cohen and others have argued that the MTA didn’t study heavy rail in enough detail
The budget language originally only included the Red Line, but was extended to the other two transit proposals before a final committee vote.
Kay said it would set the MTA’s planning back years if it had to study heavy rail as comprehensively as it had looked into the light rail plans. He said the agency’s preliminary take was that heavy rail would not make the cut, even in light of the new regulations.
“It was far out of the range of what is being considered nationally,” he said.