Few things put otherwise reasonable people in a fighting mood like an accusation of racism. So it's safe to assume Gov. Larry Hogan and his advisers were none too happy to hear that the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the ACLU of Maryland have filed a complaint this week with the U.S. Department of Transportation alleging that the decision to kill the Red Line was part of a racially discriminatory pattern of transportation decisions in Maryland.

So let's set aside the governor's motivations in deciding to block the $2.9 billion light rail project earlier this year. Indeed, it's safe to assume that Mr. Hogan's choice hinged on exactly what he said it did — that he found the project to be a costly boondoggle, particularly a $1 billion tunnel. He certainly wasn't the first person to criticize the proposed 14-mile east-west system over its cost or design.

Advertisement

The problem is not what was in Governor Hogan's heart when he made that choice, the problem is in what that choice means for the thousands of working poor families — the vast majority of them black — living in the neighborhoods that would have been served by the Red Line.

As study after study concluded, the project would have created thousands of jobs (15,000 of them along with $2.1 billion in economic activity, according to one Transportation for America report) and connected these historically isolated communities to job centers like the Social Security Administration and Johns Hopkins Bayview. Talk about breaking the cycle of poverty; that could have been a game-changer for many economically challenged communities, which are even now trying to pick up the pieces after the Freddie Gray unrest.

And though the Hogan administration deemed the Red Line's design flawed, it could have reinvested the state's share of the project, $1.35 billion, in alternative city transit projects. Instead, the governor's offered the "BaltimoreLink" overhaul of Baltimore's MTA bus system, which falls woefully short of what's needed — its $135 million budget a pale substitute given what had been promised to the city for two decades.

And where did those other capital dollars go? To projects elsewhere across the state, some of questionable merit like the realignment of U.S. 219 in Garrett County where traffic "congestion" is defined as seeing another vehicle or two on the road. Now connect that to the historic discrimination against Baltimore's disadvantaged — from the unfinished dualized highway in West Baltimore that practically killed neighborhoods and economic opportunities all by itself to the under-built, disconnected subway line that rural lawmakers fought so hard against — and it's not difficult to see the point of the complaint filed by the civil rights groups.

Again, it doesn't require anyone sitting in Annapolis to play the role of Simon Legree, cruelly seeking to hurt black people. Rather, it's a failure to address this historic pattern of discrimination in major transportation decisions and to do something meaningful about the concentration of poverty and lack of job opportunities that are directly related to it. Those circumstances didn't start when Mr. Hogan took office and, frankly, they won't end when he departs. But the governor can't deny they exist — even if his motivation isn't to hurt anyone but to help those communities that supported him and have genuine transportation needs.

Reasonable people can differ on the design of the Red Line, but it's hard to ignore the facts — that existing public transportation infrastructure in Baltimore is woefully insufficient, that the city needs jobs and economic opportunity desperately and that the communities involved have suffered from a legacy of racial discrimination. Addressing those problems doesn't require that anybody be branded with the r-word or even resurrecting the Red Line (as that train has clearly left the proverbial station). It does require a lot more than rerouting Baltimore's buses or sprucing up the stops, however.

So even before the Obama administration makes a ruling on the merits of the complaint or anyone starts talking about withholding federal transportation dollars from Maryland, there is an opportunity here for civil rights leaders, city lawmakers and Mr. Hogan to sit down and come up with a plan to better connect Baltimore's east-west neighborhoods to jobs. Expanding the Charm City Circulator or a similar service; creating express shuttles to serve major employers like Amazon; greatly expanding the number of MTA buses, routes and frequency of service; and reducing the cost (and hassle) of ridership — those are just a few of the ideas that ought to be on the table.

Should Mr. Hogan negotiate a reasonable and affordable solution to help revive Baltimore and create new job opportunities and renewed hope for the future, he would accomplish something few governors, Democratic or Republican, have done — put Baltimore on a much better track.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement