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Rail or rapid bus? Where should it go? Red Line open house meetings begin (again) in Baltimore

Visitors, young and old, packed into the community hall of St. Bernardine’s church in Edmondson Village as soon as the doors opened. Outside, signs that say “Red Line” let visitors know they found the right spot; the air buzzed with anticipation over one of Maryland’s most famous infrastructure projects.

Last month, Governor Wes Moore, a Democrat, fulfilled a campaign promise by making the announcement that the Red Line would be “resurrected.” His predecessor, Republican Governor Larry Hogan, canceled the project after most of the study was completed and the project secured $900 million in federal funding. The project was then estimated to cost around two-billion dollars which Hogan called a “wasteful boondoggle” and with the cancellation, forfeited the federal money.

Since the project is nearly a decade old, some things need to be revisited. The open house meetings allow residents to give input which is required for the updated study and environmental process.

Residents write down feedback and ideas for the Red Line. Photo by Emily Hofstaedter/WYPR.
Emily Hofstaedter
Residents write down feedback and ideas for the Red Line.

The open houses, which are being held all along the proposed Red Line East-West corridor, are self-guided. Easels with posters are set up in a circle around the room. They bear maps, information and QR codes for people to read or scan. A Maryland Department of Transportation employee stands every few feet ready to answer questions or take feedback.

Transit officials want feedback particularly on the type of transit, rapid bus or light rail, tunneling concerns (some sections could go underground), and specifics on the exact route the line might take.

Aspects of the old plan, particularly the environmental impacts, need to be reassessed, explained Liz Gordon, the director of planning for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

“Our strong preference is to reuse as much of the previous project as we possibly can. Because it was a good project where a lot of work was done, and a lot of engagement was done,” said Gordon.

She said there has to be a really good reason to deviate from the old plan. Some of those could include new construction, changes in commuting patterns and even a deeper understanding of climate change. Current plans place the line running from the Social Security Administration building in Baltimore County to Canton in the city.

There are two major options being considered for the Red Line: One is a light-rail, like the system that connects Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie, and the other is a Bus-Rapid Transit line. That’s different from the bus system Baltimore has now.

“Bus rapid transit is a type of premium transit, where you're using actual physical separation from traffic to give it the travel time that's analogous to rail,” explained Gordon. “It has different bus vehicles that you can enter from all doors, and that can hold more people. The station's are big capital investments, they're architectural, they look more like train stations.”

Bus rapid transit (BRT) would be cheaper and faster to build, she said. San Francisco has a BRT similar to the one being considered for the Baltimore region.

When it comes to community planning for the Red Line, there’s a bit of deja vu for residents like Samuel Jordan. He wishes designers could take the old plan and build it. “It had the participation of hundreds of Baltimoreans in the planning, including myself for nine years.”

He said he was “outraged” when Governor Hogan canceled the project in 2015. Jordan, who is part of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, says the red line will improve commutes by reducing them around the city. That’s an equity issue for him. “Right now, two out of three jobs in this region cannot be reached within 90 minutes by public transportation.”

Some Baltimoreans suggest that a light rail will enable better transit oriented development for the region. Photo by Emily Hofstaedter/WYPR.
Emily Hofstaedter
Some Baltimoreans suggest that a light rail will enable better transit oriented development for the region.

Hogan cut the Red Line in 2015, just weeks after the civil unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s death. At the time, it was noted by critics that the transit line would have connected many of Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods. Hogan instead spent state money on roads outside of Baltimore City. Some residents at the meeting this week in Edmondson Village referred to the Red Line as having been “stolen.”

Not everyone is convinced yet that the Red Line will be a good thing. Edmondson Village is near the infamous Highway to Nowhere that displaced many Black residents — some residents shared concerns about something similar happening with the Red Line.

“Especially the people who live on the Edmondson Avenue Corridor,” said David Smallwood, a local resident. “You have a lot of elderly people who have dedicated signage for handicap parking and things such as that. So I just want them [MDOT] to be forthright with the community.”

Gordon, with MDOT, says there are no plans that would displace people in this project. She hopes that people can have faith in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that the Red Line project has to go through to secure federal funding. “It was conceived of and made a law in response to some of those projects… that really displaced people,” said Gordon. “ It obligates us to look at every reasonable and feasible way to meet the purpose in need of the transit travel… we need to… document and have public conversations about any impacts.”

NEPA went into effect in 1970; Route 40 in West Baltimore, now known as the Highway to Nowhere, began in the late 60's and was halted in the early 70’s by white suburbanites who cited “environmental concerns.”

Residents have the following options for Open House meetings on the Red Line.

  • July 27, 3 to 7 p.m. at the Baltimore War Memorial 101 N. Gay Street, Baltimore, accessible via CityLink Blue, Orange, Purple, LocalLink 67, 76, 78, 80, 105, 150, 160, commuter buses 210, 215, 310, 420
  • July 29, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at University of Maryland Biopark, 801 West Baltimore St., Baltimore, accessible via CityLink Orange, Purple, LocalLink 78
  • July 31, 3 to 7 p.m. at Woodlawn High School, 1801 Woodlawn Drive, Baltimore, accessible via CityLink Blue, LocalLink 31, 37, 79
  • August 1, 3 to 7 p.m. at Hampstead Hill Academy, 500 S. Linwood Ave., Baltimore, accessible via CityLink Navy
Emily is a general assignment news reporter for WYPR.
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