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Baltimore mayoral candidates pledge to 'clean out,' revamp city transportation department

Baltimore mayoral candidates pledge to 'clean out,' revamp city transportation department

Last year, Gov. Larry Hogan shocked Baltimore officials when he rejected $900 million in federal funding to kill the city's long-planned East-West light rail called the Red Line.

With the massive project dead, eight of the leading Baltimore mayoral candidates, including seven Democrats, gathered Thursday to answer the question: Now what?

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The forum held at the Real News Network focused solely on transportation issues; so the format gave the audience more time to dive into topics like bike lanes, water taxis and buses than during a typical debate.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who has led early polls, cited her creation of the Charm City Circulator, a popular free bus, as evidence that she is a creative leader on transportation issues.

"I created the Circulator not just for tourism downtown, but to connect neighborhoods from the east to the west of Baltimore," Dixon said.

If elected, Dixon said she planned to "clean out the Department of Transportation." That comment prompted City Councilman Carl Stokes, one of Dixon's chief rivals, to go even further.

Stokes said, if elected, he wouldn't stop at simply removing city transportation officials. He would ask for "everybody's resignation" in city government, Stokes said.

Dixon pledged to resurface 1,000 lane miles during her term, while implementing bike projects, increasing the frequency of the Circulator routes and recruiting transportation leadership that "acts progressively."

Dixon also took aim at State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, another top rival, arguing that Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis were "playing politics" instead of learning to work with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Pugh said she has a good relationship with the governor.

For her part, Pugh, who has raised the most in campaign contributions, said she wanted to model Baltimore's bike system of D.C.'s.

"While we can drive to different places, we can bike almost anywhere," she said. "Let's take a look at what D.C. is doing. It works."

Pugh also said she wanted to partner with state officials to create a "rapid bus" system and endorsed a "futuristic mode of transportation" called skyTran, an above-the-ground transit model.

Stokes has his own new proposal, suggesting a street car line that would run from "Hilton to Milton."

Such a modern street car line could "revitalize" North Avenue, Stokes argued.

City Councilman Nick J. Mosby, the only candidate in the race to release an issue-specific plan for transportation in Baltimore, said his thoughtful planning sets him apart from his opponents.

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"The city of Baltimore has not conducted a strategic plan around transportation in several administrations, since 2003," Mosby said. "We must be serious about developing comprehensive plans around transportation."

In addition to better bus service and more bike lanes, Mosby's plan calls for "rolling back" parking fees, expanding the Circulator's routes and requiring developers to include walking paths on new projects.

Mosby also criticized Dixon, Pugh and Stokes for attending Hogan's press conference announcing changes to the area's bus system, after he killed the Red Line.

Lawyer Elizabeth Embry said she would advocate for an East-West rail line despite the Red Line's death.

Embry stressed the public transportation is so important because 77 percent of people in some Baltimore neighborhoods don't have access to a car.

"One in three jobs in Baltimore are not inside the city," she said. "We have to get it right or we cannot connect people to jobs. We can not grow the city."

Businessman David L. Warnock endorsed a "modified Red Line."

"We need to have a Red Line that goes from Social Security, stops at the westside MARC center ... and ends at Lexington Market," Warnock said. "Lexington Market can be our Penn Station."

Warnock also called for a protected bike lane network, and more investment in electric vehicles.

Former bank operations manager Patrick Gutierrez said he wanted to see a strong, regional transit network. But, he said, no promises can be made until audits are done of every Baltimore agency.

"How can we improve transportation locally, if we don't even know how much money we have?" he asked.

The lone Republican participating in the forum, Alan Walden, a former WBAL-AM anchor, said he's inspired on public transportation issues by New York's impressive subway system.

"The best, easiest, most efficient and most economically friendly way to move large groups of people from one place to another is by rail," Walden said. "We know Gov. Hogan's position on the Red Line. I am a Republican candidate. That doesn't mean I'm going to be in lock-step with Gov. Hogan on all issues, and this is one of them."

Hogan decided to kill the $2.9 billion Red Line in June, arguing the project was too expensive and a "boondoggle." In response, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other civil rights advocates have filed a federal complaint, arguing Hogan's decision effectively discriminates against African-Americans.

The forum was sponsored by Transit Choices, Citizens Planning & Housing Association, 1000 Friends of Maryland and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

Outside the forum, workers for the "Clean Slate Baltimore" political action committee, passed out anti-Dixon literature that depicted the former mayor as a criminal and stated, "Convicted of stealing from poor children. Not wanted in Baltimore."

Dixon resigned from office in 2010 after she was convicted of misdemeanor embezzlement.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater 

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