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Opinion

Picking up the pieces after the Red Line

If there was a preeminent goal attached to Baltimore's now-canceled Red Line, it was to create and fill jobs — from the thousands required to design and build the 14-mile east-west light rail line to those expected to develop along its route as new businesses and opportunities sprang forward. From Day One, it was seen as a major economic development boost, a $3 billion stimulus, a "transformational" project that would finally bring high-functioning transit — and accompanying transit-oriented development — to Charm City.

As lawmakers were reminded this week, Gov. Larry Hogan's decision to pull the plug was not just a thumbs down on a particular route or mode or tunnel, it was a choice to permanently deny the funding and as a consequence take away all those job opportunities, too. Yet even with the loss of so many hundreds of millions of dollars now headed to far flung highway expansion projects in counties with a tiny fraction of the Baltimore metropolitan area's population — and its traffic congestion — there's something else missing from this picture.

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What exactly is Baltimore's Plan B for creating jobs and providing the means for city residents with few or no transportation options to get to them?

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's call this week for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to regroup and develop a new regional transportation strategy is exactly on point. It's time to pick up the pieces and devise an alternative plan for improving not only the east-west connections across Baltimore but upgrading transit connections to, from and around the suburban counties as well. If there's one thing Red Line planning studies documented, it's a strong desire among employers and workers alike to have safe, efficient and useful public transportation options.

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Fortunately, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which Mr. Kamenetz currently chairs, has already done considerable work in this area. In a report issued earlier this year by the council's "Opportunity Collaborative," so-called "job sprawl," the problem of jobs being disbursed throughout the suburbs with little means for city dwellers to reach them, was identified as a primary problem. While the Red Line would have helped bridge this gap, so might a much greater investment in traditional transit, such as bus routes and employer-supported van pools.

Here's what needs to be done. Step one, Baltimore needs to remind Governor Hogan and others why the city so desperately needs investment — its high unemployment, isolated neighborhoods and concentration of poverty. There may be other investments and policy initiatives the governor can undertake to attract businesses and grow jobs in impoverished areas, but no such effort will be truly effective without substantial improvements to the city's transit network.

Second, Democrats in Annapolis need to earn their votes. The legislature's majority party ought to assert itself by preserving the Red Line's remnants — preventing the Hogan administration from selling off right-of-way or other assets so the route might be revisited at a later date (much as the Intercounty Connector was after Gov. Parris Glendening killed it in 1999) — and earmarking tens of millions of dollars in the Transportation Trust Fund for transit improvements in the Baltimore area. Legislators have already taken the first steps in this process, as there was money set aside for the Red Line in the Fiscal 2016 budget. But Mr. Hogan can't be forced to spend it and may even attempt to recycle it into local transportation aid under the Highway Users Revenue program for which counties have been clamoring. Still, that doesn't relieve lawmakers of their obligation to lead this particular horse to water (with a proverbial "fence" around those city transit dollars) and let voters decide what to do if the governor chooses not to drink.

Make no mistake, this shouldn't be money to expand Circulator routes for yuppies (although there should be place for that, too) but should be about getting people of modest means to jobs they so desperately need. The loss of the Red Line is a huge blow to Baltimore at a truly vulnerable moment. But simply fuming over that loss — or worse, waiting for a pie-in-the-sky project on par with the Red Line to fall in our lap — just isn't an option. The city needs (and deserves) a major transit investment, and the rest of the state would benefit if it helps put Baltimore back on its financial feet. Let's get the unemployed of this city as well as in the surrounding counties working again by providing them the means to reach the available jobs.


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