If you're paying attention to the world of transportation, transit and infrastructure these days then you have probably noticed a flurry of activity.
President Joe Biden has proposed the American Jobs Plan, which would direct hundreds of billions of dollars to transportation projects, including $85 billion for transit agencies. For that Plan, or something like it, to become law, Congress will have to develop and pass legislation, as well as work on a separate Surface Transportation Re-authorization Bill later this year.
Additionally, Congress has brought back an earmarks process where individual members can request funds for specific projects. And at the state and local level, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and City and County governments are moving forward with early implementation of the Regional Transit Plan. This includes applying for federal grants to do near-term improvements, along with initiating studies for long-term projects. All in all, it's a complex and dynamic time for transit in greater Baltimore.
To help make some sense of all this, let's look at one transit corridor and assess the different levels of activity: the east-west corridor through Baltimore City and County. Generally running from the westside of Baltimore County around Woodlawn to the eastside of Baltimore City at the Bayview MARC station, this would be essentially the same corridor that the Red Line light rail project would have run through if it were not canceled by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015. Canceling the Red Line may have erased the project from plans and budgets, but the connectivity problems it was intended to address continue to cause delays and limit access to jobs, schools and other destinations for thousands of Marylanders.
Six years later the corridor is the focus of renewed attention. There are multiple efforts underway to either win federal funding or otherwise improve transit service in the corridor. We will discuss the two large federal bills, and what they might fund in Baltimore, next week in part 2 of this series. In Part 3 we will address questions the opportunities for federal funding have raised about the Red Line project.
But first, in the nearest term and at the smallest scope, earmarks (or congressionally directed spending) represent the earliest opportunity for improvements. All three Baltimore-area members of Congress, Reps. Kweisi Mfume, Dutch Ruppersberger, and John Sarbanes, have submitted requests for $5 million each for an "East-West Priority Corridor". Additionally, Rep. Anthony Brown, whose district does not include Baltimore but who sits on the critical House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, submitted a $15 million request for the same project. If approved, this earmark would provide bus priority treatments and pedestrian improvements at stops along the City Link Blue and City Link Orange bus routes. You can check out all the transportation-related earmarks requested by our representatives in a spreadsheet we compiled HERE. It will be up to Congress to negotiate which earmarks make it into a bill and whether the bill passes.
To further enhance bus service along the east-west routes, MTA and Baltimore City are jointly applying for a $25 million RAISE grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. RAISE (which stands for Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity) grants are the Biden administration's version of BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grants which were the Trump administration's version of TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants first implemented under President Obama. Besides being a platform to workshop new acronyms, this discretionary grant program has funded nearly $9 billion worth of transportation projects over 12 rounds of funding opportunities. MTA's RAISE grant application for $25 million would go towards a total project cost of $50 million. Ideally, this would build on the earmark request (discussed above) to add even more dedicated bus lanes (about 10 miles), transit signal priority, bus shelters, wayfinding, real-time transit information, ADA compliance, and improved lighting.
While pursuing those near- and mid-term funding opportunities, MTA and its local government partners have also taken significant steps in the implementation of the new Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan by selecting two options for corridor studies for longer-term investments: east-west (Bayview to Ellicott City) and north-south (Towson to Downtown). A corridor study will eventually propose two or three alternatives for transit within the corridor. The corridor under study is geographically broad, as wide as five or six blocks and miles long. The MTA will develop and evaluate alternatives with specific recommendations for alignment (route and stations/stops), as well as mode (bus, light rail, heavy rail, etc), service (schedule and frequency), and infrastructure (physical improvements). MTA is currently asking the public to weigh in on these early opportunity corridor studies by taking this SURVEY.
These near-, mid-, and long-term efforts to improving east-west transit in the region are important for helping riders now while also setting the stage for more robust service improvements in the future. How long will it take to see improvements? Congress is just now bringing back earmarks after banning them for a decade so we will have to see how the timing plays out. If the RAISE grant is awarded we would expect the timing to be similar to the North Avenue Rising project which will take about five years from grant award, through public outreach and planning, to completion. The corridor studies could lead to a federal New Starts grant application, which tend to take twelve to fifteen years.