Recently, some of Baltimore’s leading transit advocates, along with experts from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, released a study documenting how many of the city’s low-income neighborhoods of color are isolated by lack of transportation options and how that contributes toward social ills, including: an inability to access jobs, nutritious food, quality education, health care and other necessities that more affluent residents take for granted.
This pattern of segregation, termed the “Black Butterfly” by Morgan State’s Lawrence Brown for the pattern of the city’s “wings” of low-income, primarily African American neighborhoods to the east and west with a white L-shaped corridor in the middle, is unmistakable. So are the accompanying adverse outcomes for the disenfranchised, whether measured by employment, longevity, environmental hazards or any of the other metrics the study’s authors provide. What is also irrefutable is that providing more equitable access to employment centers, to the doctor’s office, or to reliable day care and on and on, would help overcome the harms of segregation.
This is worthwhile data and analysis, but here’s what it lacks: a plan to do something meaningful about this longstanding circumstance with roots that can be measured in centuries.
The latest call is to direct federal pandemic relief funds toward the problem, and it makes some sense. The problem is that the one-time spending is no cure all. First, because the competing needs for non-transportation spending (essential services, rent relief, public health) to attack many of the same urban problems are great and, second, because transit services carry long-term operating costs that would likely not be covered without a commitment of significant state investment in the future.
The study author’s point to the death of the Red Line, the proposed $2.9 billion east-west light rail system that would have served Butterfly communities but was killed by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015, as a prime example of these inequities in transportation funding. Since then, the governor has directed more spending toward highways and the District of Columbia suburbs while choosing not to raise revenues to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, making him the first governor in a generation not to do so. The result? The cupboard is pretty bare. . The six-year Consolidated Transportation Program state officials are now parading across the state may anticipate $16.4 billion in capital spending, but it is all about preserving existing infrastructure, not expanding it. That includes the Maryland Transit Administration, where officials expect to spend money on electric buses and a renovated Eastern Bus Facility, not on a Red Line revival.
That Baltimore transit is primarily controlled by the MTA, a state agency, poses a problem all by itself. But the most commonly-proposed remedy, the creation of a regional transit authority for Baltimore and its suburbs similar to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, is also problematic unless the state provides dedicated funding — say through a significant increase in the gas tax or some equivalent. That way there would be money available to upgrade transit service to neglected communities regardless of the existing political structure. Better yet, such an initiative would be part of a broader push to offset historic segregation. After all, sometimes the answer to isolation isn’t a bus, it’s an investment in neighborhood homes and businesses so people don’t have to travel so far.
Clearly, quality transit service is no panacea to Baltimore’s troubles. If it were, Baltimore’s Upton, Mondawmin and Lexington Market neighborhoods would be booming because they are served by Metro SubwayLink, arguably the city’s most effective transit system (if limited in scope, given its single Owings Mills-to-Johns Hopkins Hospital line). But advocates are correct to recognize how new investment in city transit, particularly after the dramatic loss of ridership and service brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, would help address long-standing disparities. Not fix, not eliminate, but help. How to pay for it? How to hold elected officials accountable? How it would fit a broader effort to address the impact of redlining through community investments? That’s the next academic paper we’d love to read.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.