Tuesday, December 11, 2018

MDOT "proves" again that the Red Line can't be built

In the context of the 2019 budget the Maryland General Assembly requested that MDOT  "prepare a report on the feasibility of either re-starting the Red Line Light Rail project or developing alternatives to address east-west transit options in Baltimore City.".
A dream for now: A Red Line subway station under downtown

The request gave the Secretary of Transportation, by his actions a fan of roads and a foe of transit, another opportunity to reiterate why he and the Governor he reports to canned the Red Line. Rahn was long rumored to go back to New Mexico after the mid-term election and now appears to be staying on after all.

It isn't entirely clear what the General Assembly expected but last month it got what it had asked for. All the reasons why an east west rail transit project can't be done.

It's like asking your kid why it shouldn't go to school today, he or she will come up with plenty of reasons. The report fits a broader pattern. Here in Baltimore we have perfected explanations why something can't be done. Less frequent: The can-do attitude of success which asks: "What would it take to get it done?" Here in Baltimore we have been trained to "not raise expectations", even though pedagogy shows that nothing stultifies performance more than low expectations and conversely, nothing is more motivating, than high expectations.
November 2018 MDOT Report about the
Red Line

On 25 pages the report correctly identifies the federal funding hurdle that comes from sending $955 million of promised federal New Starts funds back to Washington and from taking the allocated State and local funds and re-purpose them to road construction.
The FTA rescinded and reallocated these highly-competitive funds to other projects following the cancellation of the Red Line project. (page 2) 
There are currently 22 projects in one of three phases of the New Starts program (Project Development, Engineering, and Full Funding Grant Agreement).4 The eight projects currently under Full Funding Grant Agreements, including the Purple Line, require $7.3 billion. Funding for the remaining 14 projects requires $15.8 billion. (page 8) 
According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), there are approximately 50 additional projects in some stage of development but have not yet entered the FTA program. (Page 10)
 The report also estimates that construction cost since 2014 (the last cost estimate and originally assumed bid date) would have risen by $500 million due to inflation. That appears to be a vastly inflated number, assuming more than 15% inflation in four years. Regardless, it is obvious that putting a project on the shelf doesn't make it any cheaper.

The paper also notes the two MARC investments at West Baltimore and Bayview which are in the MARC improvement plan and which the Red Line project assumed as happening to make the Red Line more viable. Especially the accessibility improvements at the West Baltimore MARC station have not lost any of their importance, but MDOT decided to not put any money into the future transportation program (CTP), even though the much touted LINK bus system now operates a bus hub right there. The Bayview station may be less important without the Red Line, but Johns Hopkins would still like to have it given that Bayview has close ties to NIH in the Washington area. A new MARC station at Broadway (EBDI) would be even more important, it could link MARC to the Metro subway and open up entirely new connectivity. But the current MDOT did not take the route of funding other rail investments after defunding the Red Line.
The preferred alternative scored highest and had broad support

Back to the report, why the Red Line can't be built: There is much lament about sinking revenue from the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) due to fuel efficient cars etc. No remedy is suggested. It is a  national challenge for any transportation agency that transportation needs to find new funding sources in the age when fossil fuel is replaced through renewable sources and gasoline tax revenues shrink accordingly. The report simply proves that the MDOT has no funding perspective:
The decline in revenue projections and unfunded needs make it highly unlikely MDOT would be able to restore the State portion of funding needed for constructing any major east-west transit project. Also, MDOT MTA would not be able to comply with FTA’s requirement that project sponsors demonstrate that state of good repair needs are fully funded. (pg 14)
The report talks a lot about project delivery and "design-bid-build" versus "public-private-partnerships". The original Red Line project was planned as a hybrid model, the Purple Line is a full P3. The report does not include any discussion about innovative new funding methods which are employed elsewhere to fund rail transit in spite of declining revenues and grants. No word about value-capture, transit-TIFs, transit benefit districts or sales tax referenda.
MDOT program funding: A bump from O'Malley fuel tax increases and
then a decline (Source: Report)

The report even suggests that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) would have to be redone, because "Modification of the Locally Preferred Alternative
would likely be desired or required for a variety of reasons: changes in political or policy goals,
changes in the physical environment, public or stakeholder comments, or budget considerations." This is a bold assertion.

The FEIS, a time consuming step, is precisely the reason why the preferred project alternative for which the FEIS was approved, should not be modified. Without any proof that these changes are substantial, the report simply states "there have been changes to the existing conditions. These changes include physical changes such as land use, new construction, or transportation infrastructure, but also changes in demographics and the natural environment".

If it would only be true that so much has changed in Baltimore City! In areas where new development occurred (Fells Point, Canton, Harbor East), those projects had been anticipated and been an integral part of the Red Line plans. The report gleefully mentions one apparent exception: Oldham Crossing out near I-895, a project where the report assures that new street and utilities are in conflict with Red Line plans. If true, it should be a lesson for Baltimore City and County to preserve the Red Line right of way.

Finally, the report gets back to the old bromide of the chromium findings near the eastern tunnel portal on Boston Street and considers it a "large cost risk" that was not included in the original cost estimate. Hogan has always called the tunnel as a reason to object to the Red Line, as if tunnel construction for light rail would be an out of this world concept (it is not) or tunnels in Baltimore an exorbitant risk (they are not).

The charge of the legislature to address an alternative method of upgrading East-West transit gets short shrift and is only addressed on the third last page of the report. Cavalierly passing over the question why MDOT and MTA did not study any alternative to the Red Line in the last four years, MDOT points to the Central Maryland Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) for ideas for alternatives.
Bus Rapid Transit on the surface through downtown remains a
cheap alternative proffered by people who  think Baltimore doesn't need
efficient subway tunnels (Image: Daily Record)

This especially gutsy, given that the TRP is another document that the Assembly had to force MDOT to undertake. This process has just begun and it remain to be seen with how much enthusiams MDOT will provide the process with the necessary resources and support. Lamely the report also offers the option of revisiting the alternatives that had been studied before the preferred alternative had been selected. It is well known, that Republican Governor Ehrlich took the Red Line planning process on a long detour towards bus rapid transit which ultimately proved more costly and less efficient than light rail. Who would want to repeat this?

In the Summary the report has the gull to refer to "the variety of unresolved technical and financial issues present at the time the project was cancelled", none of which the report cared to mention in any specificity. The last paragraph of the summary on the last page of the report again puts all hope in the mandated RTP, clearly not a love child of MDOT and MTA.

In all, the report is a waste of money and resources. It only tries to prove what the Governor said all along: Baltimore doesn't deserve such a big transit investment.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The author was for 13 years a consultant to MTA for the Red Line project

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