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In West Baltimore, frustration over Red Line's demise

At the Edmondson Village Shopping Center on Friday, folks weren't happy.

For at least a decade, residents had heard that the light rail project known as the Red Line was going to help revitalize the area, which is marked with potholes and dilapidated buildings. They had attended dozens of meetings — even helped pick out designs for a train stop — and hoped more businesses would come and nearby home values would rise.

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Then they got the news: Gov. Larry Hogan was declining to fund the project.

"I'm speechless," said Monique Washington-Alston, president of the Edmondson Village Community Association. "For years, we supported the Red Line because we saw it as a positive for the community as a whole. We needed some uplift here."

Customers said Friday they would have used the Red Line to travel to downtown, East Baltimore and Baltimore County. Business owners said they had hoped the train would bring in new shoppers.

"It would have created jobs," said Melvin Curbeam, 59, as he got a haircut in the Edmondson Village Barber Shop.

The shop's owner, Shelton Lee Winston, was dismayed by the waste. "All that money that's been put into it, that's all going down the drain," he said. Over the past decade, the state has spent $288 million on design costs.

In a news conference Thursday, Hogan said he would not build the $2.9 billion, 14-mile light rail line from Woodlawn to Bayview. He called the project "wasteful," "irresponsible" and "poorly conceived," especially objecting to the $1 billion cost of a planned tunnel under downtown, Harbor East and Fells Point.

But in West Baltimore, some residents said they believe the Red Line was being killed, instead of the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs, because the city project would go through poor neighborhoods. For instance, it would have run about 10 blocks south of the Gilmor Homes, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested. His death from injuries suffered in police custody in April led to widespread unrest in the city.

"If you continue to overlook these areas, the same things that happened with the riot could happen again. People are frustrated," Washington-Alston said. "How can you expect to improve an area if you don't give us a chance?"

Despite the decision, Hogan told a State House news conference he remains a strong supporter of Baltimore.

"There's no place in the state where we invest more money than Baltimore City," Hogan said. "Last week I just announced $7.3 million extra finding for the city. We just spent $14 million extra money on the riots in Baltimore City a few weeks ago."

His aides pointed out that Baltimore receives more than $1.2 billion from Maryland in state aid, which is the second-most of any jurisdiction after Prince George's County. In addition, the state runs Baltimore's jails and community college system, costing another $200 million.

The aides said that if asked by city residents, they would explain that the Red Line project simply cost too much for what it would deliver.

"Did they have a plan to pay for it?" asked Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer.

Baltimore's General Assembly delegation, all Democrats, released a statement Friday saying the lawmakers were "extremely disappointed" in the Republican governor's decision on the Red Line.

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The lawmakers said they planned to meet with business leaders and the governor's office about the decision.

Losing the Red Line will have an "immeasurable impact on the City of Baltimore, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in financial gains through the outgrowth of economic opportunity around the 19 proposed stops," the statement said. "This setback for the citizens of Baltimore will impact the poorest communities the greatest. The Red Line project would provide the necessary mode of transportation to connect these communities to jobs that do not exist where they live."

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, chair of the city's Senate delegation, said it was unclear what the delegation could do to reverse the governor's decision.

"I'm not sure exactly how we're going to move forward," she said.

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said that while the state would look at other options, the Red Line is dead. She said the state is not looking for other options to bring it back in a revised form.

Henson said it was too early to speculate about what the alternatives to the Red Line for improving city transit might be.

"We're going to take a fresh look at that," she said.

Hogan's decision was met with approval in some parts of Baltimore. The Canton Community Association, for instance, praised the killing of a project they believed would damage neighborhood quality of life.

In Southeast Baltimore, Mike Maraziti, president of the Fells Point Main Street business association, said the decision was the "talk of the neighborhood" at Jimmy's Restaurant on Friday, with people split about 50-50.

"My feeling on it personally is we need something, we need a better mass transit system. But I personally don't think that the Red Line was the best choice," he said, citing concern over the disruption caused by construction, as well as the potential problems that could arise from tunneling under blocks of historic homes near the harbor. "I'd rather see them take the monies and put out about 20 more circulator buses on the road, that run more often and have better routes."

Economists, meanwhile, had mixed views on Hogan's decision.

Anirban Basu, CEO of the Sage Policy Group who served on the governor's transition team, said he believes Hogan made the right call, even though he believes the dysfunction of Baltimore's mass transit places the city at a competitive disadvantage.

"We need those advantages, but I don't think the Red Line was the best way to address that," he said. He said money saved by not doing the project could be put toward a better bus system or other infrastructure projects.

"No one is denying that West Baltimore could use an infusion of investment — and in fact all of Baltimore could use an infusion of investment — but that project would not generate nearly enough benefit to justify the cost, whether in the form of construction or operations," Basu said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Natalie Sherman contributed to this article.

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