Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Reviving a Rail Project, Baltimore Advocates Seek Broader Reforms

The city's Red Line project was canceled by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015 after 12 years of planning. As Hogan leaves office, the project may be back. But advocates still want to change the way transit decisions are made.

A light rail train arrives at a station on one of Baltimore's existing light rail lines. Reviving the city's planned Red Line would serve a major section of the inner city, where transit options are limited.
(Liz Mangels/Shutterstock)
City planners have been calling for a train linking east and west Baltimore and its adjacent suburbs since at least the 1960s. But in 2015, just as the 14.1-mile Red Line project appeared to be coming to fruition, newly inaugurated Gov. Larry Hogan called it a “wasteful boondoggle” and sent some $900 million in funding back to the federal government.

The unilateral cancellation of the project came as an affront to the advocates and officials who’d spent 12 years and nearly $300 million getting it through the arduous planning and funding process that transit projects in the U.S. have to endure. And it illuminated not just the long history of neglect for predominantly Black Baltimore, but the uniquely centralized control of its transit system by a state agency, the Maryland Transit Administration.

Now, as another governor is preparing to take office with promises to get the Red Line completed, transit advocates are pinning their hopes not just to the revived project, but to new governance structures that could assure local jurisdictions aren’t shut out of future planning decisions.

“When you want to get rid of structural racism in public transportation,” says Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, “you have to make structural change.”

Need for More Transit Service

While Baltimore sits in the heart of a job-rich megaregion, city residents who rely on transit are relatively isolated. According to a study by the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition and public health researchers at Johns Hopkins University, an hour’s drive will get you to every job in the area, but an hour on transit will only reach about 10 percent of regional jobs. Stephanie Smith, a city planner in Baltimore and member of the Maryland House of Delegates, says the state of the transit system is linked to the city’s economic, educational and public health outcomes as well. Smith spent more than eight years commuting to Washington, D.C., for work, and says it was easier to get from Penn Station in Baltimore to Union Station in D.C. than it was to get around Baltimore city.

“We are the most transit-dependent part of the state, and yet our residents rely on wholly inadequate transit service,” Smith says.

It’s gotten worse in the last decade too, says Paul Sturm, chair of the Downtown Residents Advocacy Network in Baltimore, which has advocated for better transit. Buses are scheduled too far apart in time for most people’s needs, and on top of that they often don’t arrive at all, Sturm says.

“The core transit service in Baltimore city has gotten worse. It’s never been worse than it is right now,” he says.

Sturm's group is part of the Transform Maryland Transportation Coalition, a group of environmental, labor, disability rights and neighborhood advocates that have pushed for better transit service and policies. For the people who spent years building community support for the Red Line project, its completion was going to be a “watershed moment” in the development of Baltimore’s transit system, says Smith. The project was always envisioned as just one part of a broader improvement to the system. But its cancellation felt like a gesture of disrespect to the people who’d spent years of effort trying to get it done.

“It takes a lot to get people to vision about something they’ve never seen. It’s a lot easier to get people to protest about something,” Smith says. “To keep regular people visioning for the better part of a decade — that was heroic organizing and work and emotional labor. It’s demoralizing for all concerned.”

Disinvestment and Disparate Impacts

Service on the Red Line was initially scheduled to begin in 2022. After Hogan canceled the project, advocacy groups, including the NAACP, filed legal complaints saying the move was a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition to canceling the Red Line, Hogan also directed more money to highway improvement projects outside the city.

Advocates say the decision to cancel the transit project in Baltimore and invest in highway infrastructure elsewhere had a clear racial dimension. An analysis of the impacts sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund found that “canceling the Red Line and instead building the specified highway improvements would take away user benefits from Blacks and other racial minorities, primarily in the Baltimore area, and would increase user benefits to white residents, primarily in other parts of Maryland.”

For his entire eight years in office, Hogan’s administration treated transit solely as an expense rather than as an investment, says Jordan. And the approach reflected a broader political aversion to investing in cities, illustrated too plainly in a since-deleted Tweet showing a map of transportation investments that left Baltimore out entirely.

“Anything you do for Black people and children is always too expensive,” Jordan says.

Gov. Hogan’s office did not respond to questions from Governing.

For Brian O’Malley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and a member of the Transform Maryland Transportation Coalition, the the Red Line effort “was never about just building one light rail line,” but about making broader improvements to the system.

“There’s been no major expansion of the Baltimore transit system since the 1990s,” O’Malley says. “Any efforts to improve have just been trying to get better results out of the same resources.”

The cancellation of the Red Line project revealed a “mismatch” in the way transit is operated in Baltimore, O’Malley says: It took work by many people, thousands of people when you consider the community meetings, to put the Red Line in motion, and only one person to stop it.
A map of of the proposed route for Baltimore's Red Line light rail service. (Railfan Guide)

Reforming Transit Governance 

Wes Moore, the incoming governor, has pledged to bring the Red Line project back to life and get it completed prior to leaving office. As the Washington Post wrote earlier this month, the path forward for the project isn’t exactly clear. While the Federal Transit Administration had issued a full-funding grant agreement for the project nearly a decade ago, proponents can’t necessarily pick it up where they left off. Alternate routes — or alternate modes — may be considered. It might make sense to reconsider the contours of a project that got started nearly 20 years ago, but making big changes could also risk further alienating communities that had rallied behind the Red Line as a light rail project.

Some advocates are pushing for Baltimore to have a regional transit authority like those that govern many other big metro transit systems, as a way to avoid having projects derailed by the preferences of a governor acting alone. State Delegate Tony Bridges (who “has an amazing transit name,” as his colleague Stephanie Smith noted) sponsored a bill this year that would have established a commission “to study and make findings and recommendations relating to the funding, governance and performance of mass transit in the greater Baltimore region.” Hogan vetoed that bill. But the Baltimore Metropolitan Council picked up the thread and convened a workgroup to study the same issues.

The group’s draft recommendations include creating a Baltimore Regional Transit Commission, with representatives from the city and surrounding counties as well as governor’s appointees, that would act independently of the Maryland Transit Administration, make decisions about transit funding, and be able to sell bonds. Smith says as long as the city’s transit system is controlled at the state level, it will never be a high-enough priority to make the investments it needs.

“We need some type of independent authority where we can take on debt and really be able to chart our own destiny,” Smith says.

A regional transit commission could be a step toward creating a regional transit authority, says Michael B. Kelly, the executive director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. If it had been in place in 2015, local leaders, even if they’d been in the minority, would at least have been able to raise objections to Hogan’s plan to cancel the Red Line. Transit riders and advocates in Baltimore are looking forward to a better partnership with the Moore administration. But whether or not the Red Line is built exactly as it was planned, they’re hoping future governors won’t be able to make or break projects at their whim.

“I think this [Moore] administration is committing to moving forward with a project on the east-west corridor,” Kelly says. “But the reality is that, from start to finish, this administration will reach its term limits before the project is done, which is why we need to build the structures that will carry projects like this over the finish line and assure they actually get built.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
Special Projects