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With Biden pushing infrastructure, Baltimore should push a Red Line revival | COMMENTARY

Cynthia Shaw, president of the Lyndhurst Community Association, worked for 14 years to bring the Red Line light rail transit system to Baltimore. Last summer, she held a copy of the plan near a proposed stop for the Red Line on Edmondson Avenue. Gov. Larry Hogan cancelled the Red Line in 2015.
Cynthia Shaw, president of the Lyndhurst Community Association, worked for 14 years to bring the Red Line light rail transit system to Baltimore. Last summer, she held a copy of the plan near a proposed stop for the Red Line on Edmondson Avenue. Gov. Larry Hogan cancelled the Red Line in 2015. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

‘Tis good of Gov. Larry Hogan to move a few thousand government employees from the crummy, old state offices in midtown Baltimore to downtown Baltimore. It will give downtown a much-needed boost. But a note to state employees who haven’t been in the area for a while: Be prepared for the condition of worn-out, worn-down Harborplace. At least half of it needs to be razed, and one day maybe someone in City Hall will assert the power of eminent domain and start condemnation proceedings.

But I digress.

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Hogan’s announcement that the state will eventually evacuate its office complex, at North Eutaw Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, brings to mind the $1.5 billion State Center redevelopment project that the governor rejected. And that brings to mind the $3 billion Red Line transit project that the governor scrapped before that — all within 20 months of the Freddie Gray uprising, when Baltimore, particularly the west side, desperately needed a boost.

Both projects were a decade in the making.

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Both would have created thousands of jobs. Both would have benefited neighborhoods, some of them extremely poor, in West Baltimore and midtown.

Hogan, a Republican real estate man from Anne Arundel County, scrapped both projects and, in the case of the Red Line, moved state money into road improvements, some of them far from the city. (About $61.5 million went into a ghastly roundabout and bypass project of dubious necessity in Western Maryland.)

While relocating 3,300 workers to help downtown recover from the effects of the pandemic recession is a smart move — applaud here, if you like — it does not make up for Hogan’s earlier decisions, already engraved in his legacy, to deprive Baltimore of what it needs: new development, redevelopment, decent jobs and improved public transportation.

The governor’s second term ends in January 2023. He can’t run for reelection.

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With President Joe Biden pushing big spending on infrastructure, and with a former mayor, Pete Buttigieg, serving as transportation secretary, Baltimore and state Democratic leaders should be talking about reviving the cross-city Red Line once Hogan leaves office.

Of course, Democrats first have to come up with a winning candidate for governor who supports Red Line revival.

The second step is hard core politics, selling the revival, getting the state to come up with money for it and getting full support of regional leadership.

“The most important prerequisite is a broad and deep political will to complete the project,” says Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition. Jordan’s group believes the Baltimore region should have its own transportation authority to push the Red Line and make other big transit decisions. The coalition has launched a petition drive to get that issue to voters on an upcoming ballot.

“We want the decision-making authority sticking to the region, no matter who’s governor,” Jordan said last year. He added this when we spoke recently: “Only an informed, resolute, regional constituency that demands and pursues the Red Line will be sufficiently persuasive to the Biden-Buttigieg transportation funding strategists.”

The third step in a revival is getting the federal government to support the project again, and there’s an opportunity for that right now.

Biden’s plans for big infrastructure investment — fixing roads and bridges and expanding mass transit, among other things — are popular with the public, and congressional Democrats appear primed to push past resistance from the right to support him. (Republicans, having inherited a relatively strong Obama economy in 2017, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, adding hundreds of billions of dollars to federal budget deficits for years to come. Now, at a time of economic recovery and overdue infrastructure bills, they resist Biden by claiming concern for a ballooning national debt. Ha!)

With Biden in the White House, this would seem like a good time for someone in Baltimore — our pro-transit mayor, for instance — to pursue Red Line revival.

Congressional support for the project is still there, though Maryland’s Democratic senators acknowledge that the state needs to take the lead.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen said Biden’s plan would fund transportation projects that focus on racial equity, and the Red Line was such a project.

“Given this once-in-a-generation opportunity, and the clear negative consequences of halting the project, I’ll continue urging the state to reconsider,” Van Hollen said in an email. “I stand at the ready to help get this done if and when they do.”

Sen. Ben Cardin called cancellation of the Red Line a mistake and noted the Biden administration’s stated commitment to “investments in infrastructure that address social equity and climate action.”

There isn’t much Cardin or Van Hollen can do without a governor asking Washington to reconsider the Red Line. It will be at least 20 months before a new governor takes office, and none of this happens unless that new governor supports mass transit, specifically a Red Line revival or, at the least, a rapid bus system.

The Red Line was supposed to run from Woodlawn across Baltimore to Bayview on the southeast side of the city. Baltimoreans have not forgotten that. After a recent column on Yard 56, the new shopping center across Eastern Avenue from the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus, a reader of The Sun, Edward Mohan, wrote this: “Just imagine if the Red Line had actually been built and more people could have actually reached this location easily.”

It’s about time to re-imagine it.

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