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Red Line: Democrats are getting left at the station

Nothing unites the crowded field of Democrats running to displace Republican Larry Hogan as Maryland’s next governor like decrying the incumbent’s decision to kill the Baltimore region’s planned Red Line, the 14-mile, $2.9 billion east-west light rail line in 2015. They hate that Governor Hogan denied the jobs, the investment and the improved connections between some of the area’s least-accessible neighborhoods with jobs from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to the west and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center to the east. We’re with them on that. But what to do about it? That’s where things get a little dicier.

Oh, the Democrats all insist they’d invest far more in transit than Mr. Hogan does, which they no doubt would. Some like Ben Jealous, Krish Vignarajah and Sen. Rich Madaleno even insist they’d revive the actual Red Line — without explaining how they’d pay for it. Check out the answers given on The Baltimore Sun’s voter guide — https://elections2018.news.baltimoresun.com/governor/ — the gap between intentions and explanation of how to get it done is substantial. Rest assured, not one of the candidates is promising to raise Maryland’s gas tax, which is how the Red Line got as far as it did in the first place.

So in the interests of Baltimore’s transit future, and because we’ve grown a little impatient with all this vague chatter, we would respectfully present what the men and women running for governor should be saying about the state of Baltimore transit:

  • The Red Line is dead and it’s not coming back. Lazarus had a much better shot at resurrection than the Red Line, which, however briefly, was riding a perfect tsunami of circumstances that nearly got it built — from a highly supportive governor to funding at the state, local and federal level and its political pairing with a Purple Line serving the D.C. area. Sure, we could get a highly supportive governor again, but the Trump administration isn’t going to produce its $900 million share, nor is the General Assembly going to raise the gas tax and index it to inflation as it did in 2013. It’s been there, done that.
  • Recognize there’s not a ton of transportation dollars sitting around to plunder. That $1 billion or so in state funds the Red Line needed is now invested in other projects, many of them highway, many of them worthy. Yes, rural areas got some questionable funding after the Red Line’s death that smacks of political favoritism, but the next governor won’t have that much cash to work with even if he or she goes on a cancellation binge.
  • Think buses. That’s right, buses. They aren’t sexy. They aren’t popular. But buses remain the core of the Baltimore region’s public transportation system, such as it is. The best shot at improving Baltimore over the next four years is to commit to greater investment in buses — buying more of them, improving service, making them safer (with more police on board), having more on standby to cover breakdowns, etc. Why is bus service bad now? Mostly because we starve it with measures like the arbitrary farebox recovery rate mandate that was thankfully repealed last year but left behind a brutal legacy of overcrowded routes and substandard service.
  • Blow up the Maryland Transit Administration. A state agency shouldn’t be running Baltimore’s transit system, a regional transit board should — like every successful system in the country. Keep the funding, of course, but get rid of the state agency. Better for a Baltimore Transit Authority (there, we’ve already named it) to work without legislators or governors telling it where to put bus stops. This can get a little wonkish, but it’s vital in the long-term. Governor Hogan’s half-baked, half-funded and half-failed BaltimoreLink program demonstrates what happens when the administration has so little skin in the game.
  • Reorganize the Transportation Trust Fund so that Baltimore area taxpayers have control over future transit funding. This goes hand-in-hand with blowing up the MTA. What we’re seeing elsewhere over and over again is that when transit is working right, people want more of it and they’re willing to pay for it. Two years ago, Los Angeles voters faced “Measure M” to decide whether to permanently raise the sales tax to pay for transit. It passed with 70 percent support. Seventy percent! Raising the gas tax in Maryland again (remember, it used to be a once-every-five-years thing) is a non-starter, in part, because as Mr. Hogan demonstrated with the Red Line, voters can’t be sure they’ll get what they paid for.

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