Could a 'Red Line light' plan work in Baltimore?

Transportation is in a bad way in Baltimore. A few months ago, Maryland Sen. Bill Ferguson strongly criticized Baltimore City’s Department of Transportation for failing to submit a list of requests for transit projects to the state. Reconstruction and modernization of the Howard Street Tunnel has been put on hold by CSX. Traffic congestion is a persistent problem, and light rail ridership is among the weakest in the country. Many bus patrons have expressed displeasure with the bus system overhaul.

The elephant in the room, however, continues to be the cancellation of the proposed Red Line and its aftermath. When Gov. Larry Hogan canceled the project in June 2015, both he and Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn cited the huge cost of constructing a downtown tunnel. Reacting to the cancellation in late 2015, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) and allied groups filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The complaint alleged that the cancellation of the Red Line was discriminatory against African Americans; it was dismissed in July of last year.

The LDF complaint alleged that the Red Line would have provided improved transit to underserved African-American neighborhoods of East and West Baltimore. While the Red Line would have served several impoverished black neighborhoods in West Baltimore, the eastern leg of the line would have primarily served affluent white areas along the waterfront.

There is overwhelming evidence that car-owning residents of affluent areas in Baltimore generally shun mass transit. Critics who have pilloried Governor Hogan for his decision on the Red Line do not appear to have considered whether it is sound transportation planning to spend an enormous sum of taxpayer money on a tunnel in order to provide transit to an area where ridership would likely be weak. These critics have likewise failed to present a convincing rationale as to why publicly funded economic development, along with years of disruption, should be directed to sections of the city where private development is strong.

Still another flaw of the Red Line tunnel was its failure to create a proper intermodal connection with the Baltimore Metro subway. One long-time Baltimore transit planner has noted on many occasions that the absence of a strong intermodal connection has been a key contributor to the disjointed, underperforming character of Baltimore’s transit system.

Rejection of the Red Line does not mean that the only alternative is no new light rail line. Proposals made by Baltimore’s Right Rail Coalition address the legitimate concerns of both the LDF and Governor Hogan. The coalition’s plan eliminates the eastern leg of the Red Line and the downtown tunnel. A light rail line would run through West Baltimore; it would begin at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services just west of the city and terminate downtown. The route would traverse largely African-American neighborhoods where vehicle ownership is low. Strong ridership could therefore be expected, while elimination of the downtown tunnel would cut construction costs substantially.

Under the coalition’s plan the downtown terminus would occur at Lexington Market, adjacent to both the Metro and the existing light rail line. A vital intermodal connection would thus be created. There are plans to erect a new Lexington Market. Such a rejuvenated market, next to a major transit hub, could help to provide healthy food options for residents of West Baltimore lacking in them. The coalition has also proposed extending the Metro from its current terminus at Johns Hopkins Hospital to Bayview Medical Center, thus providing a quick, efficient transit link between the two Johns Hopkins medical institutions.

Could the political stars be aligned for the implementation of these proposals? Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh supports mass transit and has emphasized her ability to work with Maryland’s Republican governor. Governor Hogan has maintained high approval ratings but is still likely to face a difficult re-election campaign this year. He could significantly enhance his reputation as a pragmatic center-right leader by giving his support to a plan that has eliminated the downtown tunnel and that would cost far less than the original Red Line. The incentive for the governor to meet the city halfway and co-opt opposition attacks will be at its peak as Democratic challengers nip at his heels and try to portray him as unconcerned about Baltimore’s needs.

The political leverage that Baltimore could employ in a year of strong political competition is not likely to recur anytime soon. Will the city seize the opportunity to tangibly improve service for those residents most dependent on public transit?

Christopher Muldor (cmuldor@gmail.com) is a Baltimore freelance editor who frequently writes on public policy issues.

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