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Md. must make sure transit investments create jobs here

Gov. Martin O'Malley's announcement this month of an investment of $1.5 billion into the state's transportation program came close on the heels of President Barack Obama's recent commitment to grow national manufacturing. Both of these efforts represent an incredible opportunity to spur an industry with real potential and bring jobs back to our shores.

The Red and Purple rail lines in Baltimore and suburban Washington that Maryland plans to build are just two of many projects across the country aimed at expanding and modernizing existing public transportation systems to meet increased demand from commuters and residents. But while transit agencies across the nation spend an average $5.4 billion per year on bus and rail car purchases — purchases that could result in more than 32,000 manufacturing jobs — these projects have done little to ensure those jobs remain here in the United States.

Manufacturers in Maryland account for just 6.5 percent of the total output in the state and employ 4.4 percent of the workforce. With unemployment rates at 7 percent statewide and much higher in Baltimore, it's clear we need to be innovative and think about how we can grow the manufacturing industry by creating jobs across all communities, particularly those that are low-income.

In doing so, we can create great opportunities for future generations. A good, steady income is essential to giving children the best possible start in life; it allows parents to properly support their families, meet their kids' basic needs and build a solid foundation for their children's success. With so many families still struggling to make ends meet in this post-recession economy, we need to think about simple, practical solutions to make it easier for them to get back on track, allowing parents to properly support their families and meet their kids' basic needs.

One way to do that is to address the job gap that accompanies projects like massive transportation investments. Currently, transit manufacturing projects such as the proposed Red and Purple lines are typically awarded to whichever company offers the lowest price, and a significant portion of the work almost always ends up being done outside our borders in countries such as Mexico or Japan. The federal Buy America law, which the Obama administration has actively enforced to ensure that 60 percent of the products used in the construction of transportation projects are American-made, has allowed for much improvement, but manufacturers are often just doing the bare minimum. When we invest significant taxpayer dollars in rail cars or transit buses, we should have policies in place that increase employment retention while also creating more American jobs to build quality vehicles.

We've already seen the benefits of this approach. The city of Los Angeles, for example, encouraged prospective transportation contractors to incorporate plans for domestic job creation in their bid proposals, including jobs for minorities and formerly incarcerated individuals. The model proved to be very successful, leading to 500 quality jobs in Los Angeles and St. Cloud, Minn., and spurring economic development. If Maryland replicated this approach in our upcoming public transit buys, we could create jobs that otherwise would go abroad.

Transit projects like the Red and Purple lines present great opportunities for new manufacturing jobs that could help struggling Maryland families. We have a real opportunity to be one of the first places in the nation to embrace this new approach to creating and keeping jobs here at home and to develop a solid path for bringing manufacturing back to our state and country. Let's take advantage of this moment before it passes us by so that more Maryland families, workers and communities can thrive.

Scot T. Spencer is an associate director of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which develops solutions to build brighter futures for kids, families and communities. His email is sspencer@aecf.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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