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Improve Baltimore's transit to improve its future

Can Baltimore continue to do what it takes to become a thriving metropolis like Boston and San Francisco, or are we destined to be stuck in the Detroit-Cleveland post industrial doldrums? That question may well be answered by political and civic leaders in the coming months.

As business and community leaders, we have diverse views on political issues, but we agree that we must do all we can to reinvigorate the Baltimore region's economy. We firmly agree that improving our transportation system is fundamental to our future.

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The new governor and other state and local leaders should make improving that system a priority — and that must begin with support for the long-planned Red Line.

This 14-mile light rail line will finally connect Baltimore's existing rail lines and provide a vital artery to sustain a growing regional economy. With major funding already committed by the city, state and federal governments, we have a real opportunity to build more of the coordinated transit system necessary to regional prosperity.

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With more than $20 billion in downtown capital projects, improving schools, a growing population and an increasing number of neighborhoods that are affordable, safe, green and vibrant, Baltimore is making enormous progress. But to build on that momentum, the region needs to improve its transit system.

The Red Line will be a critical piece of that system. It will connect the eastern and western sides of Baltimore County and link up with the MARC system at Bayview and West Baltimore, making it easier for thousands of people to commute to jobs at BWI Airport, Fort Meade, Aberdeen Proving Ground and in Washington, D.C.

A Downtown Transit Center, though as yet unfunded, could be a linchpin in the system, connecting the existing Light Rail, Metro, Red Line and, eventually, the north-south Yellow Line. People would quickly forgo their cars when these lines are connected by sleek, WiFi-enabled cars in well-lit, artistically enhanced stations across the region.

The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, an initiative of the Baltimore Community Foundation, has successfully advocated for weekend MARC service and has shown how MARC rights-of-way can be used to connect more people to job centers across the region. But more people must be able to use transit to reach MARC trains. The Red Line will do just that.

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Boston and San Francisco depend on rapid and reliable transit to fuel economic growth and attract enterprising young people, including many working in high-tech jobs who commute from the city to the surrounding counties. They are the lifeblood of those economies.

The Red Line can help Baltimore do the same. Forbes magazine reported several years ago that Baltimore was second only to Seattle in the number of high-tech jobs available per capita, eclipsing Boston, San Francisco and Northern Virginia. These young professionals prefer city living, even if that means commuting to jobs outside the city, and they prefer mass transit.

T. Rowe Price, for example, reports that among the nearly 3,000 workers at its growing Owings Mills campus, the average age is about 30 and increasingly they prefer to live in or near downtown Baltimore and commute by subway. State and regional leaders must recognize that the Red Line is not just a "city project" but will bring benefits throughout the region.

Regions with comprehensive transit systems are thriving in states with both Republican and Democratic leadership. Consider the Dallas region, which this year added 4.7 miles to what was already the most extensive light rail network in the country, and the Salt Lake region, which has built 140 miles of commuter rail, light rail and streetcar lines since 1994.

While many regions in the U.S. have recently expanded their transit systems, Baltimore has not had a major expansion since the light rail was connected to Penn Station and BWI Thurgood Marshall International airport in 1997.

Leaders from both political parties must make sure Maryland remains competitive — not by standing pat or being equivocal but by wisely investing in world-class public transportation that promotes economic growth.

James Shea is chair of Venable, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. Frank Rosenberg is board co-chair and executive vice president at Rosemore, Inc. Thomas E. Wilcox is president of the Baltimore Community Foundation. J. Howard Henderson, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, and William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, also contributed to this article. All serve on the board of The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and can be reached via TWilcox@bcf.org.

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