Without proper rail transit, Baltimore remains rooted in tumultuous past

By Billy Owens
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

About a century ago, Baltimore and the District of Columbia shared similarly sprawling streetcar networks that moved people throughout each city as efficiently as the technology of the time would allow.

But as streetcars disappeared from the scene, Washington advanced to a six-line, 117-mile, 91-station heavy rail rapid transit system that offers commuters the option to leave their cars behind while Baltimore has stagnated with an aging bus system that many users say is inefficient.

It wasn’t that long ago that Baltimore thought it was going to have a comparable intercity rail network to D.C. A 2002 report by the Baltimore Region Rail System Plan Advisory Committee, for example, proposed a six-line, 109-mile, 122-station system to serve the greater Baltimore area (based on a similar plan from the 1960s).

The two sections of the network that were already in service in 2002 — the 15.4-mile Metro Subway heavy rail line from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital and the 30-mile Light Rail line from Hunt Valley to BWI Airport and Cromwell Station/Glen Burnie — had difficult births in the prior decades because of community opposition and a lack of money.

“Baltimore has two lines that stand alone and don’t function as a network, while D.C. had federal funds and built a network,” said Brian O’Malley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA), a transit advocacy group.

It’s not as if there weren’t any efforts to expand the rail network. From 2002 to 2015, the 14.1-mile east-west Red Line was in various stages of planning. Despite several setbacks, it nearly came to fruition until Gov. Larry Hogan announced on June 25, 2015 that he would not allocate state funds to build it.

“For eight years, it moved forward, but it moved at a glacial pace so that Hogan had the opportunity to cancel it,” said Del. Brooke Lierman, a Democrat who represents the state’s 46th District, which includes the Baltimore City neighborhoods of Fells Point, Canton, Bayview and Federal Hill. “It’s unfortunate that things have moved slowly.”

“The process just takes a really long time, to do environmental reviews, public involvement, and the engineering cost analysis, which are all designed to be careful about spending dollars,” O’Malley said. “We spent $300 million and countless peoples’ hours for nothing; it kind of backfired. Instead of being careful with money, we were being wasteful.”

While Hogan may have effectively killed the Red Line, there’s still a chance that it could be revived in the near future, according to Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition (BTEC), a transit advocacy group.

The Red Line was going to be part of a much larger rail network in Baltimore. This photo was borrowed from StreetsBlog USA.

The Red Line was going to be part of a much larger rail network in Baltimore. This photo was borrowed from StreetsBlog USA.

Hogan will be seeking reelection in November 2018, but every candidate seeking the Democratic nomination in the upcoming gubernatorial election has pledged to bring the Red Line back to life.

“If we don’t get this Red Line built, or at least a commitment to rebuilding by the November election in 2018, Baltimore will wait another 14-18 years for another modern multimodal transportation system,” Jordan said.

The BTEC submitted the first of two separate Title VI civil rights complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation against the governor, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) in December 2015 in response to the cancellation of the Red Line.

The complaint, along with the one jointly submitted by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, was reviewed but dismissed by the DOT under the Trump administration in July. The BTEC plans to appeal and refile their complaint later this month.

Transit advocacy groups like the CMTA and BTEC got the Red Line as far as it did before Hogan pulled the plug, but they’re not to blame for the project’s death, according to Alec MacGillis, a senior reporter at ProPublica and author of “The Third Rail,” a comprehensive article that tells the story of Baltimore’s transit woes.

“They’ve been fighting a lonely battle on this front for a long time,” MacGillis said. “They haven’t been able to get as much outspoken support from politicians and business leaders.”

Politicians and business leaders in the city may not be voicing their opinions on transit, but residents can in more ways than before. Social media groups such as Where’s the Bus, Baltimore? make it easier than before for Baltimore transit riders to engage in thoughtful discussions about transit-related issues, such as when buses on certain routes show up late to stops or don’t show up at all.

“Better service attracts riders and helps business,” said Danielle Sweeney, a freelance journalist and creator of the Where’s the Bus, Baltimore? Facebook group. “Crappier service makes it harder for people to get to places they need to go to.”

Proposed transit expansion projects like the Red Line claim to be markedly beneficial to Baltimore in several different ways, according to supporters. A 2015 study by Harvard researchers Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren evaluated the socioeconomic upward mobility of children who moved between different counties and county-equivalents in the U.S. to estimate their future earnings based on where they geographically and economically moved to.

Out of the 100 largest counties in the U.S., Baltimore City ranked dead last, meaning that those in the city stuck in poverty have the toughest chance of escaping it. As many in poverty do not have access to their own personal vehicles, they are dependent on public transit to go anywhere beyond walking distance.

“Improved rail transit lifts the city together more,” MacGillis said. “Baltimore is famously segregated, but if you have improved rail transit, it simply brings these parts of the city closer together and makes it much more feasible to bring not just people, but to spur economic development in those plighted areas themselves.”

The Red Line would have served several neighborhoods in West and East Baltimore that are predominantly African-American and historically low-income, which the BTEC emphasized in their complaint to the DOT.

Besides more obvious benefits such as reducing road traffic congestion, improved public transit in Baltimore would provide equitable and fair transportation options for a city whose history is marked by inequity,  Jordan said.

“Gov. Hogan reinforced that inequity when he cancelled the Red Line, because it finally meant that thousands of Baltimoreans in East and West Baltimore would not only benefit from a modern transit system, but it also meant 10,000 jobs, dramatically reduced commute times, access to another 250,000 jobs in the region within 45 minutes, [and] transit-oriented development at the 19 stations along the Red Line corridor,” Jordan said.

The city’s rail transit network may never end up rivaling the federally-funded Metrorail system in Washington. However, if improvements are to be made to the existing transit infrastructure, transit activists say these will only happen if Baltimore speaks up.

“I think that Baltimore will only have a robust transit network when voters decide it is a priority for them,” Lierman said. “When businesses and residents in Baltimore area get serious about pushing public transit, then it will begin to happen.”

 

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