Economists see positives in Baltimore Red Line construction

Some Baltimore businesses thrive during the day, serving downtown workers and residents.

Others, like bars, come alive at night.

The challenge with the pending construction of the Red Line—a 14.1-mile, east-west expansion of Baltimore’s light rail system—is balancing the needs of all of those businesses while the $2.6 million project is underway, said Henry Kay, executive director for transit development and delivery for the Maryland Transit Administration.

“This is a very huge project, and a certain amount of disruption is inevitable,” Kay said.

But he said the MTA will work with businesses in work zones to make sure customers have access to them and determine what hours of construction will be the least harmful. Those requirements will be written into contractors’ agreements with the MTA, Kay said.

“Construction is a five-year period,” Kay said. “And then you have decades and decades of operation after that.”

IN FOCUS: There are conflicting views on how the Red Line plan should move forward. Underground vs. above ground, smaller cars vs. larger cars -- Watch tonight at 6 p.m.

The Red Line will connect Woodlawn, Edmondson Village, West Baltimore, downtown Baltimore, Harbor East, Fell's Point, Canton and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

The expansion will add 19 stations to Baltimore’s light rail. The Maryland Transit Administration has projected the average number of daily riders to hit 54,000 by 2035.

Construction is expected to begin next year, and the full effect it will have on local businesses is unknown, said Gene Bracken, spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of businesses and nonprofit organizations.

“Anything I said would be pure speculation,” Bracken said.

Economists, though, are hopeful the short-term inconveniences will pay off for businesses.

The construction phase could be challenging, particularly if the work leads to road closures and traffic delays, said Daraius Irani, executive director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University.

“It’s a huge capital project,” Irani said. “But I think once it is built, it will be a huge value.”

In the short term, the project will also lead to more construction jobs, so that has a positive effect on the economy, Irani said.

And once the Red Line is up and running, it’s going to bring a lot more people to those neighborhoods who will patronize those businesses, Irani said.

Anirban Basu, an economist with the Towson-based Sage Policy Group Inc., also said the project will be a shot in the arm for construction companies throughout the Baltimore area. 

“Construction can be messy,” Basu said. “But it’s a necessary aspect of modernization.”
The project’s hefty price tag has been a source of controversy, he acknowledged, and there will likely be continued debate over whether that money could be better spent elsewhere.

“Infrastructure projects cost money, and this is no different,” Basu said. “”But what happens in Maryland that is without controversy? Almost nothing.”

The National American Public Transportation Association, an advocacy group that promotes increased funding for mass transit, estimates that every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation results in $30 million in increased business sales.

The group points to investments in public transportation projects in major cities across the country, including Boston, Salt Lake City, Dallas and Minneapolis.

In Boston, for example, the expansion of one of its bus lines led to more than $1.2 billion in new construction, including housing units and office and retail space, the group says.

Meanwhile, a study by the Boston-based Economic Development Research Corp. said congestion on the roads could put 480,000 jobs at risk by 2040.

“Any time we can get people out of their cars and on public transportation, it’s a good thing,” Irani said. “I definitely think the pros outweigh the cons.”
 

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