Red Line plan already $1 billion over budget

Breaking down the cost of the Red Line

The largest public works project in Baltimore history is $1 billion over its original budget, with construction still set to begin.

The Red Line is a light rail train that would carry commuters across Baltimore from the Woodlawn area of Baltimore County in the west, to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in the east, and back again.

Right now the price tag to build the Red Line is estimated to be $2.6 billion, up from $1.6 billion just a couple years ago.

RELATED: Economists see positives in Baltimore Red Line construction

Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore is one of the few places in the city where you can find any evidence, of the Red Line. There are signs hung by the city several years ago that read “future home of the Red Line”

“You ride past it all the time on the bus, you know you constantly see the signs in places but it's like nothing's happening,” said Alex Carter, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years.

His reaction to the possibility of a train running down the middle of Edmondson:  “The bus works just fine it's not that far from here to downtown.”

The Maryland Transit Administration expects construction to start next year with trains running in 2022.

Henry Kay is the MTA’s executive director for transit development and delivery.

It's his job to get the Red Line done.

“What we see from our neighbors down the street in Washington is when you build out a network of well-connected lines each of those lines has more of a benefit than it would if it just stood alone,” Kay said.

Right now, the Red Line's plan calls for it to extend from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Baltimore County, west of Security Square Mall.

It would run past the Social Security Administration, tunnel under narrow Cooks Lane, and then come out of the ground through West Baltimore on Edmondson.

It would go back underground near MLK Boulevard west of downtown.  Underground stations are planned for the downtown area, and then in Harbor East and Fells Point.

The train would come back out of the ground again on Boston Street in Canton.

It would turn north at Canton Crossing, and make its way through Highlandtown, and finally to Bayview Hospital -- a 14-mile trip, the MTA says, that would take about 45 minutes.

“We very much think of it as the trunk of a future network of services in that corridor,” Kay said.

Not everyone agrees.  Marty Taylor is a medical researcher who's helped start a group called the "Right Rail Coalition.”

“It just doesn't do what it says. It doesn't make transit better,” he said.

Taylor and other volunteers -- including, he says, civil engineers -- put together a new plan that they've been pitching at community meetings around the city.

The major difference -- the Right Rail Coalition is calling for the elimination of the tunnel under downtown.  Instead they say surface streetcars could carry just as many people across downtown -- for up to a billion dollars less.  Plus they say it would be easier to connect the east-west line with the existing Light Rail and Metro Subway.

“We're not saying start over,” Taylor said.  “We're not saying kill it. We're saying how can we use where we are now to go forward in a way that makes Baltimore transit better?”

About $1.2 billion of the $2.6 billion is slated to come from the state's transportation trust fund -- supplied by the gas tax of 2013.

The project is in line for a maximum of $900 million in federal grants.

The MTA says a public-private partnership will net $275 million.

And the City of Baltimore will be responsible for $200 million, with Baltimore County supplying another $50 million.

“Between the city and the county together we're looking to fund 10 percent of the project cost, which we think is a reasonable balance between what they can afford and what we need,” Kay said.

Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has not said how the city will cover its $200 million portion of the price tag.

But a spokeswoman said the mayor continues to support the Red Line

project, because of the transit and economic development that she says will come with it.

Officials in Baltimore County are less enthusiastic.  Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz realeased a statement that reads:  “The Red Line was always supposed to be state and federal funds.  The county continues to review this new request and has not made any decisions."

County officials are not the only ones who appear to be souring on the plan.

“Right now it's a billion dollars over budget without a single shovel in the ground,” said State Senator Bill Ferguson, a Democrat who represents areas of Baltimore City including the Inner Harbor and Canton.

He said people who live in Baltimore need to take a close look at the Right Rail's plan to eliminate the downtown tunnel.

“I think that they've put forth documents that show a billion dollars less of a plan that accomplishes remarkably similar objectives,” Sen. Ferguson said.

He also criticized the $200 million Baltimore City is now being asked to contribute to the plan.  “This is a new proposal. This is 200-million dollars that otherwise could be going toward road improvements, toward improving schools toward better health outcomes, that wasn't ever the case for the red line for the last 10 years, until now,” Sen. Ferguson said.

So could the city be forced to raise property taxes, to pay for the red line?

Henry Kay says that's not going to happen.

“I don't think anybody has reason to be concerned that the city or the county would raise property taxes to fund the project. I honestly don't think the city or the county would be interested in doing that,” Kay said.

Don Fry is the head of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which promotes downtown business interests.  He said the Red Line has already survived a long process just to qualify for the $900-million in federal funds.

“These projects are not inexpensive but if we keep having delays that makes the cost go even higher. So we have to make sure we get this done as soon as possible so we can live within the costs that we have,” Fry said.

He said radical changes at this point, like those proposed by the Right Rail Coalition, could jeopardize the federal money -- and with it the entire project.

“We just can't afford to delay any longer the cost will go up and the likely hood of having this happen in Baltimore will be diminished if we don't move soon,” Fry said.

Marty Taylor said that federal money won't mean much if the cost of the Red Line continues to rise.  “I'm not going to be surprised when the next number is over 3 and when we end up paying $4 billion for this thing,” he said.

Back on Edmondson Avenue, Alex Carter says other than passing by the signs, he hasn't been thinking about the red line very much.  That, he says, is going to change.

“If people care about their community they need to speak up,” he said.  “If you allow them go do anything they want to do, they're going to keep doing it. They're going to keep spending your money and they're not even going to tell you what they're doing.”

Henry Kay from the MTA said inflation accounts for much of the increase in the Red Line’s budget.  The $1.6 billion figure is in 2007 dollars; $2.6 billion is the estimated value in 2018, one of the years that money will actually be spent.

There have also been some changes to the project that have added to the cost, including extending the downtown tunnel on both ends to address what the MTA calls "construction complexity" and concerns from the community, and also to bury it lower under the ground.

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