Study: Lack of coordination persists among Baltimore area governments

Nearly half of Maryland residents call the Baltimore Metropolitan area home. This home, however, is politically fractured, despite the economic ties that bridge Carroll County to Annapolis and Columbia to Bel Air.

In the Baltimore region, planning for housing and economic development occurs almost entirely at the county and city level. While counties and the city have long worked together to plan for transportation policy, lack of political consensus has left holes in the region’s transportation system.

The most visible of these is the lack of major east-west transit through the region’s core — a gap that the canceled Red Line would have filled. Traffic congestion is worsening as low-income residents continue to find it difficult to access employment. Further, that lack of political consensus has created a patchwork of housing and zoning policies, created to meet unique jurisdictional needs, which may not be efficient or equitable on a regional scale. Housing costs continue to escalate, and low-income families find it increasingly difficult to find stable, quality housing.

Three years ago, the “Opportunity Collaborative,” a consortium of regional governments, nonprofits, and businesses released the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development (RPSD). This plan was the final product of a multi-year, multi-million dollar effort that was funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The goal of the planning effort was to develop coordinated strategies to address the growing economic and social disparities that pose a challenge to the long-term sustainability and health of the greater Baltimore region.

The National Center for Smart Growth (NCSG), where we work, was a partner in that consortium. We recently completed a retrospective review of the RPSD planning process. Our conclusions are based on dozens of interviews with stakeholders and experts who participated in the process. In this election year, we would like to call attention to the results of our study.

The RPSD planning process showed the strength of local networks in addressing issues like housing, transit and equity, but the experience after the plan highlighted the region’s main gap: the lack of coordination among local governments. The Opportunity Collaborative’s work showed via maps the inequitable access to opportunity that limits social mobility for so many regional residents. By lack of access to opportunity, we refer to the uneven distribution of quality public schools, safe neighborhoods, social networks, and healthcare — all factors that can influence an individual's life path. This inequality in access to opportunity is geographically concentrated in a number of places.

Enhancing access to opportunity requires regional strategies to promote the construction of affordable housing in high-opportunity areas, while expanding access to transportation and economic development in low-opportunity areas. Some progress is being made in housing, with programs such as the regional project-based voucher program. Progress remains stymied in housing equity, however, evidenced by the continued opposition to policy changes like those proposed in the HOME Act, which would eliminate housing discrimination based on source of income.

Planning for regional fair housing continues to be divorced from local housing policies, with disastrous consequences for low-income communities. Regional expansion of public transportation remains stymied, though the conversation about the Red Line has not stopped after its cancellation. While the region and the state are experiencing a period of strong economic growth, the geographic distribution of this growth remains uneven.

The main obstacle to implementation of policy choices suggested by the RPSD is a lack of political buy-in. Politicians remain focused on their individual jurisdictions, as their opportunities for regional coordination are few, and the political infrastructure for such cooperation is mostly non-existent.

We hope that all officials running for local and statewide office this year remember the 2015 RPSD, which was released in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death. This region’s future can only be bright if the inequities perpetuated by decades of regional decision making are addressed at the regional level.

Nicholas Finio (nfinio@gmail.com) is a research associate at the National Center for Smart Growth within the University of Maryland, where Casey Dawkins (dawkins1@umd.edu) is a professor of urban studies and planning. Willow Lung-Amam, Brandon Bedford, Gerrit-Jan Knaap and Eli Knaap of the National Center for Smart Growth also contributed to this op-ed.

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