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Red Line roadblock [Editorial]

Last month, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz wrote a letter to Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr. indicating his displeasure with certain aspects of the proposed Red Line light rail project. He doesn't want the county to contribute nearly as much as the state has proposed, and he wants the county's portion of the 14-mile line to be built in an "early phase" of construction.

But that doesn't really capture the sheer audacity of the letter. That Mr. Kamenetz would make such demands on such a major transportation project is truly the tail wagging the dog. What he is barking at is a mere $50 million contribution — compared to financially-strapped Baltimore's expected $200 million share. And he clearly holds the view that only the portion of the Red Line that is physically located within Baltimore County should matter to Baltimore County residents.

And here's where it really gets outrageous. Mr. Kamenetz doesn't even want to lay out cash. He was the county's contribution to be $26.5 million and entirely made up of "in-kind" contributions, meaning stormwater improvements, sidewalks, lighting or other projects related to the Red Line construction the county does on its own would be credited as a contribution. That approach is not unusual (the city will likely do the same as will local governments involved in the Purple Line projects near D.C.), but state officials say the actual projects the county is proposing don't all qualify for such credit.

How ironic that the letter was addressed to Mr. Smith, Mr. Kamenetz's predecessor as county executive and the man with the "hot line" to Gov. Martin O'Malley. One can no more imagine Mr. Smith standing in the way of such a major economic development project benefiting the entire Baltimore region and strongly backed by the Greater Baltimore Committee for the sake of such a relatively piddling sum (at least in terms of transportation construction dollars) than endorsing Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for governor. It has become commonplace for Baltimore County's leaders to speak of a "partnership" with the city; is Mr. Kamenetz seeking a trial separation?

One trusts that Mr. Kamenetz will not be allowed to cause further delays to the schedule for the Red Line which, even if construction begins next year as scheduled, won't be completed until 2022. Surely, the O'Malley administration still has methods available to bring political pressure to bear — assuming that the governor can tear himself away from Des Moines and Manchester long enough to work on his day job. The county could easily find state funding for some of its favorite road construction projects temporarily put on hold — not unlike the kind of leverage Mr. Kamenetz might use against a recalcitrant County Council member.

Perhaps it doesn't help that Mr. Kamenetz and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have a somewhat frosty relationship or that the county executive seems to be more invested in reducing the cost of government to county residents than improving the quality of their lives. But only a true fiscal myopic sees victory in potentially blocking the revitalization of neighborhoods located along the Red Line's path (which happen to include the county's largest employer, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Woodlawn) to save $50 million paid over seven years.

As for building the county's share of the Red Line first? Well, that would be foolish if the goal is to keep costs down. Better for the Maryland Transit Administration to build the most expensive portions first — namely the tunnels under the city — to avoid more budget overruns. Rising construction costs are an even bigger threat to the project than reluctant suburban politicians.

We'll admit to one thing on Mr. Kamenetz's side — there was a day when major transit projects didn't require a local match, but they do now if Maryland is to qualify for federal funding, which is highly competitive. The $50 million figure is based on the number of stations in the county (four) compared to the city (15). Four-nineteenths of $250 million (the local share, amounting to 10 percent of the overall cost) is $52.5 million. That was rounded down to $50 million. A similar formula was used for the Purple Line, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties appear to be fine with it.

Baltimore needs the jobs and opportunities that come with a functioning transit system, and Baltimore County needs a more prosperous city, not to mention the thousands of construction jobs involved. That makes it far more prudent for Mr. Kamenetz to be fully on board with the Red Line by the Sept. 1 deadline to finalize the local contribution than on putting up road blocks that might prove the county executive penny wise but dollar foolish.

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Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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