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Hogan promises plan to address Baltimore vacants, transit woes

Pledging to fix what's broken. In an op-ed for The Baltimore Sun, Governor Larry Hogan vows to make Baltimore more livable and to solve the problems plaguing the city. (CBS Baltimore)

Declaring that he wants to help make Baltimore a more livable city, Gov. Larry Hogan is promising a plan to "knock down blocks of derelict buildings" and to fix the city's "broken" transit system.

In an opinion piece in The Baltimore Sun, the Republican governor reaffirmed his commitment to the Democratic-dominated city, which he called "bustling, amazing, beautiful."

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City Hall welcomed Hogan's show of support, which came after the governor met Thursday night with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

"The mayor is pleased to see the governor continue to talk about his commitment to wanting to assist Baltimore," said Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake.

The governor's article restates his past commitments to promote charter schools and economic development in the city. The boldest policy pronouncement was a vow to address what he called "the sea of abandoned, dilapidated buildings that infect entire neighborhoods."

"These empty, decaying structures are a breeding ground for crime and an impediment to private-sector investment," Hogan wrote. "Blight is a symbol of what's wrong with the city, and taking steps to fix the problem can be an equally powerful symbol of Charm City's rejuvenation."

His op-ed was published online Friday and will appear in Sunday's print editions of The Sun.

The governor said he will put forward a plan to demolish swaths of blighted properties and to create parks and other open spaces. Hogan also restated his administration's previous assurances that it would soon roll out a proposal to overhaul mass transit in Baltimore, where many elected officials are still stunned by his cancellation of the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project.

While city advocates and elected officials welcomed the governor's promises, they warned that addressing problems of blight and transportation would be neither easy nor inexpensive.

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, said the governor's proposals have the potential to re-energize a city that needs it.

"I'm encouraged by many of the things he said, but we'll see how it's reflected in his upcoming budget and subsequent budgets," McFadden said.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, another city Democrat, echoed that sentiment.

"Until we know the specifics, it's hard to judge how much of a commitment the governor is making toward the city," Ferguson said.

But Matthew A. Clark, the governor's communications director, said it is "premature" to put a price tag on Hogan's proposals.

"The first part of the conversation shouldn't be about dollar figures. It should be about ideas," Clark said.

Libit said that while the mayor is pleased at Hogan's interest in demolishing blighted structures, the ideas aren't new. Over the past five years, Libit said, the city has demolished or rehabilitated about 3,000 vacant homes and attracted more than $100 million in private investment to Baltimore through Rawlings-Blake's Vacants to Value program.

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City officials hope Hogan is talking about providing more state resources for that program, Libit said. He said that from in budget years 2013 to 2015, the city spent $32 million on demolitions, with additional money coming from the state and federal governments.

Richard Hall, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said clearing blight involves much more than sending in crews to knock down buildings.

"Just figuring out who owns them, getting title to them, seeing who lives next door: There are a lot of questions the city housing department has been looking at," Hall said.

Hall, a former state planning secretary under Gov. Martin O'Malley, said that in many cases vacant buildings should be candidates for rehabbing rather than demolition.

"It's not to say that doing demolition is bad, but it's got to be done at the right place at the right time," Hall said.

Ferguson said there's general agreement that more demolition is needed in a city whose population has shrunk from 1 million to about 630,000. He said the city has about $100 million in potential demolition projects that could start immediately.

Nevertheless, the senator questioned whether turning blighted neighborhoods into parks is necessarily the best strategy.

"I think we need to be looking at revenue-generating solutions," Ferguson said. Among those, he said, would be new small businesses and residential opportunities.

Hogan reiterated his administration's commitment to finding solutions to improve the transit system in Baltimore after scrapping the long-planned Red Line as a "boondoggle." He pledged that Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn would soon advance "a new approach to transit" that will include "dedicated corridors to rapidly move people east-west and north-south."

"While Baltimore's broken transit system cannot be fixed overnight, if the city is willing to consider new ways to utilize buses, trains and other transportation options, we can successfully partner to build a modern system that works for the people of the city," Hogan wrote.

Clark said Friday that it is too soon to say whether the dedicated corridors Hogan described would be part of a Bus Rapid Transit system, a model that would involve significant capital spending to create lanes separated from the flow of other traffic.

So far, Rahn has held out little hope of additional transit spending for Baltimore, promising improvements within the existing Maryland Transit Administration budget. The state money saved by canceling the Red Line has mostly been distributed for highway projects elsewhere in the state.

Hall said there's no way to make meaningful improvements to transit without significant new investments.

"It's disingenuous to imply that you can," he said.

Any new spending in Baltimore would have to compete with Hogan's other priorities, including fulfilling campaign promises of tax rollbacks.

Clark said Hogan, who was in the hospital Friday for his fifth round of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, remains committed to spending restraint.

"Marylanders don't want to see tax dollars go to waste," Clark said. "They do not want to send good money after bad."

But the Hogan spokesman signaled a willingness to cooperate with Rawlings-Blake, whose recent decision not to seek re-election appears to have eased some of the previous political tensions between the two.

"The governor is very serious about working with the city to fix these major challenges," Clark said.

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