On President Barack Obama's last full day in office, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it would conduct a sweeping review of Maryland's transportation policies to determine whether they violate federal civil rights rules.
The department made the decision after investigating complaints about Gov. Larry Hogan's cancellation of the Baltimore Red Line light-rail project in 2015. It's unclear whether President Donald Trump's Transportation Department will continue the probe.
A civil rights official for the department wrote Hogan last week that its Red Line investigation had raised questions about whether authorities made transportation decisions in a way that violated anti-discrimination rules based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
"DOT will conduct a comprehensive compliance review of the [state's] programs and activities in order to ensure Title VI compliance," wrote Yvette Rivera, the official. "This review may require the development of a compliance action plan and corrective action plan to remedy any areas of noncompliance."
The letter from federal authorities is dated Jan. 19. Trump was inaugurated Jan. 20. Advocates have expressed concern that civil rights work will not be a priority for the new Republican administration.
The Transportation Department did not respond to questions about the review.
Hogan, a Republican, canceled the proposed 14-mile $2.9 billion rail line in June 2015. He called the project — which would have run across Baltimore from Woodlawn to Bayview — a boondoggle.
The $1.35 billion the state was to put into the project was redirected to pay for highways.
A spokesman for Hogan said the civil rights review will show that the project was unsound because it cost too much, included an infeasible tunnel and had insufficient links to other transportation networks.
Spokesman Doug Mayer declined to answer specific questions about the review.
"I'm not going to comment on the validity or necessity of a review launched by a previous administration on their last legal day in office in response to a decision made nearly two years prior," he said.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation in December 2015 highlighting concerns about the Red Line and decisions by state officials dating back to the 1930s that the Legal Defense Fund and ACLU considered discriminatory.
The groups pointed to the "highway to nowhere" in West Baltimore — the road was supposed to be part of a new highway network, but was abandoned after residents were forced from their homes — and existing mass-transit systems that do more to serve predominantly white neighborhoods than black ones.
"The Department of Transportation's decision is a necessary first step in addressing Maryland's discriminatory decision to cancel the Baltimore Red Line," Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the defense fund, said Monday. "We are confident that the expanded review will confirm DOT's initial finding that Maryland's decision to deny thousands of African‐American residents of Baltimore meaningful access to public transportation has violated federal law."
Federal authorities have concluded that Hogan's office canceled the Red Line unilaterally and without consulting the state's Transportation Department, Rivera wrote. State authorities have not provided any evidence that they considered the civil rights implication of the decision, as required under federal rules, she wrote.
After canceling the Red Line, Hogan announced a program called BaltimoreLink, intended to increase the speed of bus service in the city.
Rivera wrote that the idea was mostly a rebranding of an existing initiative, and civil rights groups say it is insufficient to make up for the cancellation of the Red Line.
Mayer called the assertion that the governor's office acted on its own a "flat-out, outrageously false and misleading statement."
He said state officials have been working with federal investigators for more than a year, and that Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn had offered to meet with them.
Obama administration officials rushed to get civil rights projects completed in their final days in office. The Justice Department moved quickly to complete a consent decree with Baltimore addressing civil rights violations by the city Police Department before Obama left office.
On Friday, the department asked the judge overseeing the decree to postpone a scheduled hearing so lawyers could have more time to brief the new president's team.
Ajmel Quereshi, one of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers in the case, said he does not anticipate the change in administration will affect the investigation.
"It's our expectation that the DOT is going to do what they said they're going to do," he said.
Civil rights investigations by the U.S. Department of Transportation have led to local governments being forced to reverse decisions.
Quereshi said federal authorities could direct Hogan to reinstate the Red Line or provide other funding to help Baltimore.