U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said plans for a new light rail line in Baltimore should move forward during a visit to the city Monday to promote the Obama administration's economic agenda.
Perez said investment in mass transit, such as the two light rail lines proposed for the Baltimore and D.C. regions, would increase the region's competitiveness and help people reach jobs more easily. He also spoke in support of a high-speed train that would connect the two areas.
"We must be relentless on mass transit," Perez told a breakfast meeting of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "It isn't the Purple Line versus the Red Line. It should be the Purple Line and the Red Line."
Perez's comments came as the projects fall under greater scrutiny.
During his campaign last year, Gov. Larry Hogan said the state could not afford the investments. His administration is reviewing the costs of the projects, starting with the 16-mile Purple Line, which would swing from New Carrollton in Prince George's County to Bethesda in Montgomery County, linking into Washington's Metro system. It is estimated to cost $2.4 billion.
The 14-mile Red Line, estimated to cost $2.9 billion, would run east-west through Baltimore, connecting Woodlawn, west of the city, to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center on the east side.
The Greater Baltimore Committee, which hosted more than 100 people at the sold-out breakfast, has championed the Red Line as an economic driver.
GBC President Don Fry said it was "really significant" to have a federal secretary advocating for the projects, but the support was no surprise.
"The federal government has been very solid on its position on both the Red and the Purple lines," he said. "The key is going to be getting the state of Maryland to agree."
Perez, a former Montgomery County Councilman, led Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation before joining the Obama administration in 2009 as part of the Justice Department. He was appointed Labor Secretary in 2013.
During his speech, he highlighted the economic growth experienced under the Obama administration, citing 60 consecutive months of private sector job growth and falling unemployment levels, among other indicators.
The number of jobs moved past the pre-recession peak last year, while in February the national unemployment rate hit its lowest level since May 2008.
But Perez said income inequality is holding back further improvement. He also discussed Obama administration intiatives to fund free community college and create more apprenticeship programs, which he said would help reduce gaps by providing workers with needed skills.
"That principle of giving those multiple pathways, understanding that you can do four-year college you can do two-year college, you can do apprenticeship, you can redesign high school — these are ways that we fortify the skills superhighway," he said.