A Red Line That Shouldn’t Be Crossed

When the Maryland Transit Administration first proposed a new light rail system for Baltimore, the plan was to add 66 miles of track on six lines at a cost of $12 billion. More than ten years later, as a result of skyrocketing costs and collapsing revenues, that plan has dwindled to one east-west line. Chronically underfunded and over budget, this project has been ill-fated from the beginning.

The Red Line, the lone survivor of the original plan, has been cut down from 21 miles to 14, from 27 stations to 19, and has had its start date pushed back from 2013 to 2016. It’s not expected to open until 2021, if not later. Unfortunately, even after numerous modifications, the city still can’t afford it.

In 2009, the line was expected to cost $1.6 billion. By 2011, mounting costs and persistent delays had pushed the total over $2.2 billion. Undeterred by its $2.3 billion revenue constraint, the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board called for spending 93% of the area’s entire revenue between 2016 and 2021 on this single corridor. As a result only 7% of the funding is available for all the other highway and transit needs.

That was two years ago. As of last month, the governor’s office reported the line will cost $2.6 billion—over $185 million per mile. There is not yet a clear explanation of where all this money will come from, nor what other projects will get axed to make way for light rail, but proponents of the plan remain hopeful that federal grants will cover an unspecified portion of the construction costs.

Boundless optimism is no match for fiscal realities, however. Over the next ten years the city government is facing a $745 million deficit which grows to $2 billion when infrastructure needs and pension liabilities are included. With already exorbitantly high property and income tax burdens, raising taxes is simply not politically feasible. Baltimore must find a realistic and fiscally responsible way to meet its transit needs; the Red Line is not it.

A Better Way

Fortunately Baltimore has options. Bus Rapid Transit, an innovative bus system that provides rail-like service at a fraction of the cost, is an increasingly popular option with cities looking to expand transit without breaking their budgets. Traveling on dedicated lanes with queue jumps and traffic signal priority, BRT uses larger vehicles than regular local buses, combining frequent service with frequent stops. Because the lines are built on existing infrastructure, BRT is both faster to implement and less expensive than light rail.

In 2008, before settling on the $1.6 billion plan for the Red Line, MTA did a comparative analysis of various BRT and rail alternatives. Simply by replacing light rail with BRT, the cost of the project fell by a third to $1.1 billion. Skipping the hugely expensive tunnel portions of the line and building on the surface would bring the total down to $545 million—only around $40 million per mile.

Best of all, if the city implements a “Managed Arterials” strategy, the capital costs of building BRT on the Red Line can be subsidized by drivers who pay a toll to use the excess capacity of the busway. By varying the toll rate based on demand, the city can keep the lanes flowing freely, even during rush hour, to guarantee fast and reliable transit service, as well as reduce traffic congestion along the corridor.

Baltimore doesn’t have to wait another decade for expanded transit, nor pay through the nose for an expensive light rail line. Bus Rapid Transit offers a cost-effective solution that can be implemented today to meet the region’s needs and not worsen the government’s financial situation. It’s hard to stop a train in motion, but the city shouldn’t let inertia carry it towards bankruptcy.