Silver and Red: Can Baltimore ever catch up with D.C. on public transit? | COMMENTARY

People ride on the new Washington Dulles International Airport metro, during the opening of new Silver Line Extension at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

People living in the Baltimore area can only marvel at this month’s opening of the Silver Line, the $3 billion, 11.5-mile extension of the Washington, D.C., Metrorail from Reston to Dulles International Airport and beyond to Ashburn. The project was four years delayed and substantially over budget, but the boost to already-affluent Loudon County is unmistakable. Not just because it serves Dulles, the nation’s 25th busiest airport, but because it expected to undergird Northern Virginia’s burgeoning tech corridor. And, oh, did we mention that enormous investment is on top of the Purple Line, the 16.2-mile-long, $3.4 billion east-west light rail system connecting Metrorail stations in Bethesda and New Carrollton, that was recently put back on track after a two-year legal dispute and is expected to be finished by 2026?

Say what you will about the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and controversies regarding its governance, funding (including a looming half-billion-dollar deficit when federal COVID relief funds dry up) and loss of passengers during the pandemic, taxpayer support for D.C. transit is — if not meeting the BMW standard — somewhere around Buick at least.


Now compare that to life in the 1971 Chevrolet Vega that is the Maryland Transit Administration’s efforts in Baltimore, with the subway, bus and light rail systems of far more limited scope (although all bestowed with the word “Link” by the MTA to perhaps magically make them seem more important and integrated than they actually, are as in Metro SubwayLink, Light RailLink, CityLink, etc.). Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to cancel the Red Line, the $2.9 billion light rail east-west light rail line that would have connected Woodlawn with Johns Hopkins Bayview in 2015 was a tough loss, of course, but not an especially politically consequential one for the governor, who went on to be reelected in 2018 by more than 270,000 votes including a hefty majority in Baltimore County. Why? Because there are still a lot of Baltimore suburbanites who view transit investment with great suspicion, or to put it more bluntly, who see it as a threat — to traffic, to property values and to their own public safety.

These sentiments were on full display Nov. 9, when the Greater Timonium Community Council hosted a meeting with the MTA to discuss future transit options, including running a light rail line down York Road. The prevailing view was that transit would merely provide the means for certain city residents (presumably poor, Black and armed) to invade the lives of the Timonium-Cockeysville-Hunt Valley corridor (predominantly white and upper middle class). Never mind that the existing light rail line with stops at the Maryland state fairgrounds, where the meeting was held; Warren Road; Gilroy Road and all the way to Hunt Valley serve the community — but less effectively because the stops are so far from the York Road commercial district. The handful of audience members who rose to express interest in York Road light rail drew resounding boos from the crowd.


This isn’t much of a surprise, of course. A lot of county residents were distressed more than 30 years ago when Gov. William Donald Schaefer first advanced the north-south Central Light Rail Line, as it was originally called, offering the same segregationist reasoning. But it does underscore the challenge facing Gov.-elect Wes Moore, who has pledged to revive the Red Line beyond coming up with the necessary funding. Where Washingtonians welcome transit expansion, Baltimoreans more readily fall into the trap of seeing it as a handout to the poor — or worse. Never mind how public transit can attract greater economic development or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Only closed systems like Baltimore County’s Towson Loop circulator bus, both lines of which start in, end in and serve only Towson, draw widespread support in the Baltimore suburbs.

Yet none of that should deter Governor Moore, whose campaign was about leaving no one behind. There’s simply no question that too many in Baltimore have suffered exactly that fate. And while comparing Baltimore and D.C. on transit systems isn’t quite fair (Loudon County residents might have felt differently about the Silver Line if trains arrived straight from Anacostia or Brentwood instead of a string of high-priced neighborhoods), it is reasonable to draw the contrast between a city with $6.4 billion in expanded rail investment and one that has gotten something closer to bupkis. Residents of the latter deserve far, far better.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.