NAACP, ACLU challenge Hogan administration over scrapping Red Line

Groups contend shifting Baltimore Red Line money to highway projects discriminated against African-Americans.

A coalition of civil rights groups filed a federal complaint against the Hogan administration Monday, contending that its scuttling of Baltimore's Red Line light rail project discriminates against African-Americans.

In a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the coalition argued that canceling the project was one in a series of racially discriminatory transportation decisions Maryland has made over many decades.

"The cancellation of the Red Line, rather than being a cost-saving measure, was simply a naked transfer of resources from the project corridor's primarily African-American population to other rural and suburban parts of the state," the complaint says. The east-west rail line would have extended 14 miles between Woodlawn and Bayview.

The group, which includes the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU of Maryland, is asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to launch an investigation into Gov. Larry Hogan's decision in June to block construction of the $2.9 billion transit project.

Ultimately, it wants federal officials to "take all necessary steps" to stop Maryland from discriminating in transportation funding — including a possible cutoff of federal transportation aid until the state agrees to resume Red Line construction or come up with another plan. Maryland receives more than $800 million a year in such aid.

A Hogan spokesman flatly rejected the complaint's assertions. "Ultimately, this so-called complaint has absolutely zero credibility or legal standing, and is essentially nothing more than a press release," spokesman Doug Mayer said.

"The Red Line didn't move forward because it was poorly designed and simply unaffordable, with at least a billion-dollar tunnel running through the heart of the city," Mayer said. He said Hogan is "fully committed to improving transportation in Baltimore," pointing in part to the governor's plan to spend $135 million on a bus route overhaul.

Lawyers for the coalition said they are acting on behalf of the Baltimore NAACP, the Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality (BRIDGE) and African-American city residents. The legal defense fund, which has brought many landmark civil rights cases over the last century, is a separate organization from the national NAACP.

The complaint contends that Hogan's decision to cancel the Red Line and shift hundreds of millions of dollars that had been slated for the rail line into highway projects around the state had a disparate impact on African-American Baltimoreans.

The group said the state's transportation models show that whites will receive most of the benefits of the new road spending, while African-Americans living in Baltimore will face longer transit rides as a result of the Red Line's cancellation. Whites will gain $35 million in annual benefits from the shift by 2030, while African-Americans will receive $19 million less than if the Red Line had been built, according to the complaint.

But representatives of the coalition said their complaint is about much more than the Red Line. Its cancellation, the complaint says, is "the latest chapter in a long history of racially discriminatory decisions regarding the allocation of transportation and housing resources" in Maryland.

"Maryland, including the city of Baltimore has exhibited a preference for its white residents in highway construction decisions since at least the 1930s," the complaint says. It points to decisions to cut through African-American neighborhoods in West Baltimore to make way for planned interstate highways that were abandoned after the communities had been devastated.

The complaint also points to the state's abandonment of plans to build a more extensive subway line than the current Metro, arguing that the planned system was curtailed to assuage the fears of white suburbanites. The filing also notes that the city's existing north-south light rail line does not serve the communities where most of the city's black residents live.

The Red Line, the groups contend, was a vital piece of the state's plan to remedy racial disparities in some of the city's most congested and economically stunted areas, including the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where the arrest that led to the death of Freddie Gray took place.

According to the complaint, the Red Line would have reduced travel times significantly between West Baltimore and employment centers such as Bayview, Woodlawn and downtown.

The Rev. Robert Walker, speaking for BRIDGE, said the issue of transportation is closely connected to education and jobs.

"You can't get from where you live to where good jobs are. It keeps your community impoverished," he said.

The coalition is bringing the action under the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has been used in the past to force local governments to reverse discriminatory transportation policies financed with federal dollars.

Ajmel Quereshi, assistant counsel at the legal defense fund, noted that the state share of the investment in the Red Line would have been about $1.35 billion. Hogan did not reinvest that money in the city, he said. "It didn't go to other improvements in the city of Baltimore but rather went to road projects in other parts of the state."

Quereshi pointed to a 2013 case in which the federal department found that Beavercreek, Ohio, was found to have practiced racial discrimination in the placement of bus stops. The lawyer said that while the Baltimore case involves capital spending on a much greater scale, the principle is the same.

If the complaint is upheld, Quereshi said, the advocates hope it will lead to settlements talks involving federal and state officials. He said a similar Title VI case brought in the Los Angeles region in the 1990s yielded a favorable settlement for the defense fund's clients.

According to the federal Transportation Department, filing of the complaint will trigger an investigation by the Federal Transit Administration's Office of Civil Rights. The department said the FTA can either reject or uphold the complaint. If the complaint is upheld, the agency would send the state a letter detailing the violations, potential remedies and consequences of failing to come into compliance.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the city administration hadn't seen the complaint and couldn't comment on its content. But he restated the mayor's support for the Red Line project.

"The Red Line was without question a jobs creator and a tool to connect some of our residents and neighborhoods most in need with jobs and other economic opportunities," he said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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