Friday, September 29, 2017

Why the Red Line didn't get built

The cancellation of the Red Line has reached such notoriety that hardly any local discussion about transportation goes by without bemoaning the fact that Baltimore has no major transit project of any kind on the horizon. Hogan's toll lane highway proposal was instantly compared with his stand on Baltimore's Red Line. Even national publications keep mentioning the Red Line, such as the Atlantic's CityLab in an article on Thursday as an example for possible obstacles cities find on the path of being the perfect Amazon HQ2 city. (Amazon HQ2 Search Is a Reckoning For Transit).

Which begs the question: What exactly caused this region to loose the $3 billion project?
Beyond the obvious reason that Governor Larry Hogan, once he was governor of Maryland, decided not to pursue the project, declined the federal funding offer and instructed the engineers to shut down their work on the project and cancel any planned bidding. Is that really all?

Why did the newly elected governor even get into the position to make this decision? A question which reaches further than how it came that the anointed candidate Brown lost against Hogan.

The real question is, why after 13 years of planning and design and spending around a quarter billion dollars on preparing design documents, the project was so shaky that a new sheriff in the State could simply sweep it off the table. Why was the project not already bid and under construction 13 years after having been identified as the priority project of the regional rial plan?
broad coalitions are needed to get anything done

Asking these questions is about what lessons this region can learn from the past, with a gubernatorial election around the corner yet again and various candidates vowing to revive the cancelled project. Also, since the State currently doesn't have any projects for expanding transit, what has to be done differently next time?

To take the question why the project wasn't under construction before O'Malley left office first: A simple answer is that the late baker and developer John Paterakis killed the schedule and thus the line by demanding a last minute shift of the Harbor East station one block to the west. This demand required costly and time consuming re-engineering of an underground station and re-configuring the alignment leading up to the relocated station because of changed curvature. Even without a new environmental impact study (EIS) as the enemies of the project demanded and  MTA rejected, resorting to a simple amendment, the shift took at least six months of engineering time and prevented bids from going out. Without that delay several contracts would have been bid and awarded prior to Hogan coming into office.

But blaming the late baker still doesn't answer a host of related questions: Why did MTA go along with this request instead of fighting it or setting on eminent domain? With condemnation and "quick take" the project could have move forward. The price uncertainty from the powerful developer potentially dragging the State through the courts for years with unpredictable cost implications stopped the State going that route. But nobody actually grabbed the bull by the horns and set up a face to face meeting with Paterakis trying to make him reconsider, potentially with the help of some political pressure. Instead, everybody just settled with that it was too difficult to discuss the matter with the old man, as illustrated by the fact that even his former partner Michael Beatty, a friend of the Red Line, could not change the baker's mind.

That unwillingness to engage with a powerful player and play hardball was indicative of a general lack of urgency that had been sitting like a big fog over the  project for some time. This set the Red Line stood in stark contrast to Governor Schaefer's central light rail line. That new rail line completion had been inextricably tied to the opening of the new downtown Oriole Park and everybody understood the deadline from the first day on, excuses and delays were simply unacceptable. Wherever  and whenever obstacles appeared, whether it was the Meyerhoff objecting to trains on Cathedral Street, or Ruxton protesting a station, the Gov himself showed up and made a decision. Just like City department heads had feared the irascible Schaefer when he was mayor, none in the light rail project hierarchy dared to contradict him when he was governor. In the case of the Meyerhoff Schaefer avoided the conflict himself, when surrounded by engineers, he by realigned the train to a route which traffic engineers had described as impossible. In the case of Ruxton, he simply ordered their station eliminated.

On the Red Line project, Paterakis was only the last in a long line of cases in which "bad behavior" was enabled by leniency and lack of resolve. All along, any number of tangential studies were launched to appease the eternal naysayers in Canton or the Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC), each time diverting resources away from getting the project done. Unlike on Schaefer's line, which was presented as a done deal from the onset, the Red Line, as defined in the regional rail plan, seemed always more like an unloved  stepchild that could be pushed around. Most notably this became obvious when Bob Ehrlich became governor soon after the project had been kicked off. Ehrlich was lukewarm about the rail plan, ended work on the Green Line, and ordered lengthy investigations into bus rapid transit alternatives to be integrated into the alternatives analysis which turned out to be more costly than rail when tunnel was considered.

When O'Malley became Governor he soon announced alternative 4C as the locally preferred option, essentially the version that was eventually fully engineered. By this time, though, valuable time had already been lost and there was no drive to make it up. Instead the project bid dates and opening dates came and went while the overall cost estimates increased. That this was possible cannot only be explained with MTA's project management or slow engineering but is also a reflection of an environment where the project was devoid of strong champions in local government, at MDOT or in the private sector. Governor O'Malley and his MDOT Secretary Porcari were initially strong supporters and spearheaded the bills that established the necessary funding streams on the State level, but once that was done and Porcari changed to the federal level, leadership from the State began to flag.
Always strong: Congressman Cummings and the congressional
delegation. Always absent: The county executive

On the local level, Mayor Rawlings Blake needed years to warm up to the project for which her predecessor had been a strong supporter. And the County Executive was generally a no-show when it came to the Red Line. He frequently grumbled about details and design flaws and did nothing to convince his doubtful suburban voter base to embrace the project. For example by conceiving strong land use initiatives for the line which ran essentially through no man's land except for the federal offices of Social Security and CMS. While Sheila Dixon created the Red Line Community Compact to support community planned intensified land use at the envisioned stations, no such effort happened at the stations in the county. Huge transit oriented development opportunities at the ailing Security Mall were sketched out by Red Line consultants, but the Executive shrugged his shoulders, pointing out that it was not the government's job to corral the five mall owners around a TOD plan. Now, one of the mall owners presented just such a plan as the Red Line would have needed. Baltimore County also balked when it came to local funding for the Line and contributed a small amount only after a lot of hemming and hawing. Former mayoral deputy Dan Sparaco recently pointed correctly to the fact that Kamenetz only became a fervent Red Line supporter after Hogan killed the project.
Brown-Hogan debate 2014

Finally, the private sector. Large transit projects need strong private support, but in Baltimore enthusiasm for the Red Line was generally tepid and rarely went beyond a signature under the Compact document or letting the Greater Baltimore Committee CEO do the talking. Since the project was designed without the necessity to occupy private land (with the exception of Paterakis' lot and very few other locations), company CEO's and developers didn't have to really step up to the plate and become active partners, instead they often hedged options for the case the project wouldn't happen. While this may look smart in hindsight, it also let a Republican governor eliminate the project without fear that potent business interest would get on his case because they had actual "skin in the game".

This enumeration of lacking enthusiasm is incomplete and one can certainly argue about the degree to which support did or did not exist, but ultimately the proof is in the pudding. It is obvious that the current Governor could take $3 billion off the table without hurting much politically, especially not with groups which represent his constituency. Had the region from the beginning stood united across all geographic areas and all levels of government and with the business community, we would have seen see the project under construction, no matter who is Governor, just as the Purple Line survived.

For the Baltimore area to be a competitive location and be attractive for its own residents, a plan for a much more diverse and multimodal transportation system is needed, whether it is a version 2.0 of the 2001 rail plan or some other more innovative iteration. For such a plan to be implemented, though, it takes much more leadership, commitment and engagement on all sides than was seen for the Red Line. The same is true for almost anything big, this region wants to get done.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Loss of Red Line will prove costly - Baltimore SunHow You Can Tell Larry Hogan’s Decision to Kill the Red Line Was Racially Discriminatory

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