The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has released projected levels of effectiveness for its six proposed Red Line alternatives, comparing cost, ridership, and other metrics for the light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT) options along three different alignments.
The agency used the Federal Transit Administration’s STOPS program, a data modeling tool that takes into account Census numbers, current transit ridership levels, and other data to generate trip and ridership projections for new transit projects. This modeling analysis is highly recommended for projects seeking capital funding through certain federal grants.
Among the alternatives, Alternative 1, which includes a light rail tunnel and closely resembles a previously canceled alignment, appears to be the most effective in terms of projected travel time for the east-west corridor, overall ridership, and trips from zero-car households. The study estimates a 45-minute, end-to-end trip from western Baltimore County to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, around 10 minutes faster than surface alternatives. It also suggests as many as 35,500 daily riders for this option.
However, the tradeoff for Alternative 1 is cost and a longer timeline. Building a light rail tunnel alignment would take nine to 12 years and cost up to $7.2 billion in capital investment, not considering inflation.
Other alternatives, such as 2A (light rail Surface North) and 2B (light rail Surface South), offer the most value for MTA’s funding. While they fall in the middle range for upfront cost, they score best in terms of capital cost per trip, at $14. Alternative 3, which features a downtown tunnel but relies on bus rapid transit instead of light rail, has the highest capital cost per trip at $26.
Alternative 2A, which features surface-level light rail across Baltimore Street/Eastern Avenue and Lombard Street/Fleet Street, appears to have the highest score for reaching “transit critical populations” and providing connections to other rail and bus lines. However, it ranks lower in terms of end-to-end travel time.
According to MTA administrator Holly Arnold, regardless of the selected alternative, all options will have enough ridership to justify premium transit investment. The Red Line project is expected to be transformational for the region.
The projections reflect current population trends, costs, and land zoning, but Arnold acknowledges that they may change over time. Future redevelopment plans and projects in the pipeline could significantly impact the corridor by the time the Red Line is operational.
Arnold suggests conducting more model runs that look further into the future to analyze potential trends and opportunities for transit-oriented development. The agency wants to focus on affordable housing and other initiatives to make the Red Line a strong and successful project.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld urges residents, officials, and stakeholders to share ideas and information to make the Red Line a crown jewel of Maryland’s transportation network. Feedback from the public is important in deciding the most suitable alternative.
Surface-level options offer more access for transit-critical populations, as they feature more stations compared to the tunnel alternatives. The agency aims to ensure that the Red Line connects riders to current and future job locations, although specific data on this metric was not provided.
The average daily ridership projections for the six alternatives range from 22,000 to 25,500 daily trips, or between 660,000 and 767,500 monthly rides for any 30-day month. This would be slightly higher than the ridership on the existing north-south light rail line before the pandemic.
The MTA recently launched QuickLink 40, an express bus service that follows a similar path to the proposed Red Line. In September, the route recorded nearly 25,000 riders, indicating strong demand for a reliable east-west crosstown connector.
Surprisingly, projections show that if bus rapid transit is selected and the ridership numbers match, it could become one of the most successful bus rapid transit systems in the country. However, ridership projections for rail options are almost double those for bus rapid transit, which has surprised MTA administrators.
Considering the numerous variables, the decision on the Red Line alternative will revolve around identifying the problem the state aims to solve. This includes considering access to jobs, transit-critical populations, and planned development in specific areas.
Mixing and matching different alternatives is still being considered, with potential alignments such as Pratt Street downtown and continuing on Eastern Avenue and Fleet Street.
The MTA is seeking public feedback on the proposed alternatives. Public meetings are scheduled, where residents can engage with MTA staff and ask questions about the effectiveness measures for each option. The MTA aims to select a state-recommended alternative by early 2024.
Ultimately, the Red Line is expected to have a significant positive impact on communities along the east-west corridor. The MTA and local stakeholders are eager to collaborate and make the Red Line a key component of Maryland’s transportation network.