Cynthia Shaw kept her photos from the 2008 trip to Portland, Oregon, where a group of Baltimoreans boarded the TriMet light rail to feel the type of smooth, fast ride that promised to connect and revitalize some of their city’s most isolated, neglected neighborhoods.
The Lyndhurst Community Association president still has the spiral-bound “Vision Plan” she and other Edmondson Village volunteers created for their station of Baltimore’s long-planned, east-west Red Line. Tucked between the pages is a certificate of appreciation the Maryland Transit Administration presented her in 2012.
It’s all she has to show for more than a decade of work. The MTA spent nearly $300 million in planning, design and land acquisition for the 14.1-mile light rail line. Marylanders still pay the increased gas tax that would have helped build it. But Shaw and her fellow transit riders are left waiting for the bus.
Five years ago, in the face of renewed calls for investment in Baltimore after the unrest over Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody, Gov. Larry Hogan canceled the $2.9 billion Red Line, scrapping a project touted as a windfall of jobs, development and environmental sustainability, especially for some of the city’s Black neighborhoods.
The newly elected Republican governor returned $900 million in federal funding and shifted $736 million of state money to roads in the surrounding, predominantly white counties.
“It was mind-boggling to me,” Shaw said. “I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
“The impact of this decision will color social, economic and environmental outcomes in this city for a generation.”— State Del. Robbyn Lewis
The move drew federal complaints and an Obama administration investigation into whether it violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Trump administration closed the review without issuing any public findings.
Shaw had helped convince skeptics in West Baltimore, who remember the “Highway to Nowhere” built through Black neighborhoods. The Red Line would connect them to the rest of the region, she said, not take their homes.
Then, after 14 years of countless MTA meetings, officials abruptly stopped taking her calls.
‘Ripped out of our grasp’
The transit line — from Woodlawn through West Baltimore, downtown, Fells Point and Canton to Johns Hopkins Bayview on the east — had been planned since 2002. But various versions of the line had been on city transit planning maps since the 1960s.
The Red Line aimed to transform the Baltimore region’s meager, single-line light rail and subway, which don’t share any stations, into a more unified, useful network. The project promised to create an estimated 13,000 jobs and stimulate $6.5 billion in economic development along the corridor.
More than 100 neighbors and other stakeholders helped develop the Red Line Community Compact, designed to ensure that the communities along the line benefited from the project and had input in its planning. Training for construction, maintenance and transit operation had been planned for students and adults at Edmondson-Westside High School.
“The Red Line was, and is, one of the single most important things that can be done to prepare Baltimore for the future,” said John Porcari, former Maryland secretary and U.S. deputy secretary of transportation, who helped acquire the federal funding for the project in the Obama administration.
Former Gov. Martin O’Malley, Hogan’s Democratic predecessor, signed an unpopular gas tax increase into law in 2013 to raise state money for the Red Line and other projects. But Hogan, a suburban real estate developer who campaigned against increased taxes, viewed the light rail line as a “wasteful boondoggle.”
In particular, Hogan balked at the $1 billion proposed tunnel under downtown Baltimore, Harbor East and Fells Point. The city already received the second-most state funding of any Maryland jurisdiction, he said. Rather than an outcry for more investment, the 2015 unrest became a reason to cut.
“We just spent $14 million extra money on the riots in Baltimore City a few weeks ago,” said Hogan, explaining his decision during a 2015 news conference. The governor declined a request to be interviewed for this article.
Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, remembers feeling “profound disappointment” at Hogan’s decision.
“At a time when people were looking at Baltimore for so many [negative] reasons, it could have been a signal we were investing in our communities that needed it the most,” Rawlings-Blake said. “Instead, it was unceremoniously ripped out of our grasp.”
Cost estimate called unrealistic
Pete Rahn, Hogan’s then-transportation secretary, still believes the Red Line’s $2.9 billion cost estimate “wasn’t realistic.” After likely cost overruns due to tunneling, and factoring in all the commitments made to neighborhoods, the Red Line’s cost would have ballooned by an additional $1 billion Rahn said recently.
“The more I looked into it,” he said, “the less confidence I had.”
“We just spent $14 million extra money on the riots in Baltimore City.”— Gov. Larry Hogan explaining his decision in 2015 to cancel the $2.9 billion Red Line project
But the state conducted no cost-benefit or equity studies before canceling the Red Line, Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Henson confirmed.
The project had already received an “enormous amount of economic analysis” by federal authorities who selected it as one of only six major transit projects nationally to receive funding, said Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a pro-business group.
Instead, the governor set his sights on a less costly alternative: improving the MTA’s regional bus system. A $135 million overhaul in 2017 called BaltimoreLink installed bus-only lanes downtown and shortened routes to make service quicker, but required transfers that meant more time waiting for buses.
Henson said investing in the “deficient and unreliable [MTA] bus system, which is what the majority of transit users in the city use today,” allowed the state to create routes to new job centers such as Tradepoint Atlantic in Baltimore County.
“Buses are more flexible and have allowed us to meet the needs of workers throughout the region, not just along the Red Line corridor,” Henson said.
Bus service, which is targeted for significant cuts in January due to revenue losses during the coronavirus pandemic, got worse for riders by at least one key metric.
A Baltimore transit passenger could get to only 11% of the region’s jobs within an hour in 2014, according to the Accessibility Observatory at the University of Minnesota. By 2018, after BaltimoreLink, they could reach only 9% within an hour.
The bus overhaul was “not an adequate substitute for a multibillion-dollar project that would have provided thousands of jobs and connected significantly disadvantaged parts of the city,” Fry said.
Anirban Basu, an economic adviser who served on Hogan’s transition team, agreed with the governor that the Red Line was not worthwhile for the state “on a per-dollar-spent basis.”
But Basu also said the lack of reliable public transit is “one of the most infuriating aspects of life in Baltimore.” The state money for the Red Line should have been reinvested, either in the bus network or the neighborhoods that lost out on the project, said Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group.
“Not enough money and thinking went into rethinking bus service,” he said.
Lingering pain over highway
Glenn Smith was 19 when his family was forced out of his childhood home on Lauretta Avenue in 1969.
“Fort Lauretta,” as they called their corner brick rowhouse with Formstone side and green aluminum awnings, needed to be sacrificed to make way for the East-West Highway, which would connect Interstate 70 on the west across downtown with Interstate 95 on the east, they were told.
Opposition in white neighborhoods killed the highway plan before demolition reached Fort Lauretta. But many other homes fell, and thousands of Black families were displaced for a sunken, 1.2-mile section of U.S. 40, the “Highway to Nowhere,” built through the middle of West Baltimore.
Smith, now vice president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, said neighbors had looked forward to the Red Line, which was to run along the highway, bringing investment and some measure of healing to the bulldozed areas.
“Five years after the cancellation of the Red Line, which I thought was going to be an answer to the destruction that was done to this community, we still see the devastation that’s still here,” Smith said.
Robert Hunt, president of the Alliance of Rosemont Community Organizations, just wants his neighbors to be able to get to the supermarket more easily. None of the 17 neighborhood groups that make up the alliance have one in their community, he said.
The Red Line was “an opportunity to reverse 40 years of neglect in West Baltimore, of being ignored,” Hunt said.
Cleaner transit, cleaner air
State Del. Robbyn Lewis, then an environmental activist in Patterson Park, had been planting trees and writing grants, trying to make her neighborhood the greenest in Baltimore when she was drawn to her first Red Line meeting in 2011.
Improved connections and faster ride times promised to draw 40,000 riders a day from Greater Baltimore’s congested roads and reduce both traffic and auto emissions.
After learning about political threats to the project, Lewis took mobilizing classes and organized Red Line Now, a political action committee to lobby for it. She modeled it after a group created for the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs, a transit project Hogan did not cancel. It is currently mired in a dispute over cost overruns.
The Red Line Now effort, albeit unsuccessful, helped propel Lewis to her seat representing the city’s 46th District in 2016. But her blood pressure still rises when she thinks about the Red Line’s cancellation, she said.
“Even five years later, I’m almost at a loss for words,” Lewis said. “The impact of this decision will color social, economic and environmental outcomes in this city for a generation."
Erik Fisher, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland assistant director and land-use planner, called it “emblematic of the broader issue in Maryland, where transit plays second fiddle to our highways.”
A third of the bay’s pollution comes from the air, he said.
“Every car off the road reduces pollution to the bay," Fisher said. "When you have generational projects like this that don’t happen, it sets us back.”
Clean transit has health implications for Baltimore, too, where up to 20% of children have asthma, far higher than the state and national rates. Respiratory diseases plague the area where Smith grew up, near the West Baltimore MARC station, which would have been a Red Line stop.
“Instead of having clean transportation," he said, “we end up with several bus routes that come here every day."
O’Malley called his successor’s decision “a really appalling failure for all of the people of our state,” both for allowing “pockets of poverty” and neglecting the “additional imperative of protecting the Chesapeake Bay.”
“It’s such a huge missed opportunity for economic justice, and for a healthier bay and a healthier city,” he said.
A 'long historical pattern’
In its federal complaint, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said Hogan’s decision followed a “long historical pattern of deprioritizing the needs of Baltimore’s primarily African American population, many of whom are dependent on public transportation.”
A City Council ordinance in 1910 barring Black people from living on any block occupied by whites was the most blatant example, but far from the last in more than a century of segregationist efforts to keep Black Baltimoreans away from their white counterparts in the city and its suburbs.
Roland Park, one of the country’s first planned suburbs, was off-limits to Blacks. Anne Arundel County residents scuttled plans for a southern link of the Baltimore subway in the 1960s, calling it the “loot rail.”
Neighbors in Baltimore County’s Ruxton and Riderwood areas rejected a station of the north-south Light Rail line for the same reason, even though it mostly linked primarily middle class, white areas to downtown, Camden Yards and later BWI Marshall Airport.
More recently, in 2018, Anne Arundel County officials cited concerns about increased crime — despite police data to the contrary — in asking the MTA to reduce transit service. Late-night fights in White Marsh prompted similar calls from Baltimore County officials, who blamed them on city youth.
Red Line opponents in Canton worried that the preferred route along Boston Street would be an eyesore cutting off the mostly white, relatively wealthy neighborhood from the water, reducing property values and exacerbating traffic and parking problems.
The Canton Community Association was among the most vocal groups against the Red Line. But Mark Edelson, who has since become president, said he and others “felt very differently” and saw the benefits improved mass transit could bring to Southeast Baltimore and the city as a whole.
“The city lost out on that significantly," he said, "whether you agree or disagree here and there on what the plan was going to be.”
By halting the Red Line, Hogan engineered an “explicit and blatant transfer of economic investment from Black communities to white communities,” Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill said.
Henson countered that under Hogan, Maryland’s transportation department is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in Baltimore’s transit system and “recognizes the regional importance of ensuring a safe, efficient, and reliable transit network.”
“The Red Line had several potential high-risk cost factors that were borne solely by the State of Maryland, such as a tunnel,” the transportation department spokeswoman said. “The decision to cancel the Red Line was solely based on risk to the state.”
But to Porcari, the fact the Red Line was never built, despite being in plans for decades, is “inextricably intertwined historically with the politics of race.”
“If you know what you’re looking for, the entire transportation history of Baltimore and the metropolitan region reveals those racial politics,” Porcari said.
Some still hoping
Five years later, Samuel Jordan refuses to let go.
The Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition president is critical of those who have conceded that, given the governor’s control of state spending, the Red Line is effectively dead until Hogan leaves office.
No other project — especially BaltimoreLink, which Jordan derides as a “three-card Monte” sleight-of-hand trick — carries the same potential for transforming the region, he said.
“Whenever there’s a responsible discussion about transportation in the Baltimore region, the Red Line has to be mentioned,” Jordan said. “We want the transit advocacy community to be much bolder. Faced with structural racism, you need to make structural change.”
The group is petitioning for the creation of a Baltimore Regional Transportation Authority to take the reins from the MTA. The state-owned transit agency has left the region lagging far behind neighboring Washington, where a regional authority has developed one of the world’s best-known subway systems, Jordan said.
“We want the decision-making authority sticking to the region, no matter who’s governor,” he said.
It’s a long-shot effort, especially with the coronavirus interrupting efforts to gather signatures. But it has the support of City Council President Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee for mayor, who is heavily favored in November’s election.
“The cancellation of the Red Line was just the latest blow in government-created inequity for Baltimore — West and East Baltimore, specifically — for generations,” Scott said. “It’s critical that we have a transportation agency focused and operated in a regional manner.”
The cancellation dashed Shaw’s hopes for rejuvenation of Edmondson Village Shopping Center and stabilization of her working-class community along Wildwood Parkway.
“For a long time, I was very disappointed, very angry,” she said. "We put too much work into it. It would have brought too much opportunity to our community. …
“It’s systemic racism. What else can you call it?”
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Red Line by the numbers
$2.9 billion: Red Line’s projected total cost
Maryland Policy & Politics
$900 million: Red Line funding Gov. Larry Hogan returned to the federal government
$736 million: State funding Hogan shifted to roads in other counties
$4.6 billion: Economic development Red Line was projected to stimulate
14.1 miles: Length of the proposed light rail line from Woodlawn to Bayview
19: Number of proposed stations
14 years: How long the Red Line was in development
40,000: Projected number of daily riders the Red Line would have drawn from the region’s roads