A community group rallied Wednesday near West Baltimore's infamous "Highway to Nowhere," seeking jobs in the construction of the proposed Red Line to help rebuild communities devastated by condemnations and relocations for highway projects in the 1960s.
Speakers, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, vowed to keep up the pressure on government officials to ensure that Baltimore residents received a substantial share of the jobs and career-training opportunities that could be generated by construction of the $1.8 billion transit line.
As proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Red Line would be a 14-mile east-west light rail line running from Bayview to Woodlawn through downtown Baltimore. The state is now seeking federal approval for up to 50 percent financing for the project, which, if approved, would presumably have to be matched by state-generated funds.
The Red Line has run into opposition from neighborhood groups in Canton and West Baltimore, but participants in the rally organized by the church-affliliated Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality (BRIDGE) were generally enthusiastic about the transit line. Their emphasis was on making sure Baltimoreans — particularly the African-Americans whose parents and grandparents benefited little from the massive public works projects of earlier eras — received their share of the pie.
"We want to make the 'Road to Nowhere' a road to somewhere for people of Baltimore," said Maureen Daly, media coordinator for BRIDGE, a group with ties to about 50 churches and faith-based groups in the Baltimore region. The group is advocating that at least 30 percent of the paid hours for building the Red Line go to low-income individuals, including women and minorities.
The "Highway to Nowhere" is the unofficial but often-heard description of U.S. 40 between Franklin and Mulberry streets, west of downtown, where it starts out as a grade-separated highway much like the interstate it was intended to be. But 1.4 miles later it ends with an exit onto city streets and an incomplete bridge where its planned connection with Interstate 70 was halted by community opposition in the 1970s.
Stopping the highway was counted as a victory for road opponents, but it came only after hundreds of homes in West Baltimore were condemned and razed for the portion of highway that was built, bisecting neighborhoods and forcing thousands to relocate. The seizures and demolitions came at a time when Baltimore's African-American community had little political influence and could not resist the pressure from City Hall and downtown business interests to build highways.
Speaker after speaker yesterday recalled that history, describing the disrupted neighborhoods as stable, unified communities that fell into disrepair as a result. Many expressed the hope that the Red Line project could help bring jobs and development to parts of West Baltimore where boarded-up buildings and active drug corners are now commonplace.
"We want this Red Line project to mark a change in direction — a change in the way we carry out public works projects," said the Rev. Gary Dittman, pastor of Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said the BRIDGE campaign aimed to bring opportunities to all city residents.
"What this is all about — it's not just transportation, it's about building people, building families, building communities," Cummings said. "This is not a black or white thing. It is a Baltimore thing."
Cummings departed from the nonpartisan tone of the event to take a swipe at former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the likely Republican challenger to O'Malley, over his opposition to the light rail plan chosen for the Red Line. Ehrlich questioned whether the state has the money to build the line as O'Malley proposes.
"This is not a political event but, but, on June 17 Bob Ehrlich said that if it's up to him there would be no Red Line," Cummings told the crowd. "I'm not telling you what to do. I'm just telling you what he said."