Conservatives, Light Transit, Baltimore and the Urban Question

Klaus Philipsen
Sustainable Cities Collective

July 6, 2015

Baltimore unrest 2015

Baltimore, synonym for how conservatives fight cities

The name of my hometown by choice, Baltimore, Maryland, has lately become a synonym for America’s urban condition. Baltimore: it stands for police violence and the war on drugs, urban poverty, and the country’s historic and unresolved problems with race.

Baltimore stands for the growing chasm between haves and have nots. But it also stands for the sought after characteristics or resurgent and thriving cities – it’s hip, authentic, home to first rate anchor institutions, possesses an innovative, creative vibe, and with some very successful examples of economic recovery, can serve as a model for other legacy cities.

After last week, Baltimore also stands as the latest example of the gruesome damage that can be wrought by a conservative governor willing to undermine a more predominantly liberal urban center for political gain.

Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, battling his own mortality having recently been diagnosed with cancer, called a press conference just a few days after revealing this diagnosis during which he delivered a fatal blow to the Baltimore Red Line.

The Red Line, a nearly $3 billion transit project, is a fully designed surface-subway light rail line, shovel ready and even recommended by the Federal Transit Administration to receive the very scarce and coveted “New Starts” funding.

The Governor approved another light rail project, the $2.5 billion Purple Line in the D.C. suburbs, though with severe conditions that may ultimately prove to be fatal, including a slashed State funding portion down 75% to a measly $168 million. He did all this in the name of “roads and bridges for every county in the state.” Yes, that’s right, new transportation policy is all about asphalt and concrete!

This is not the first time a conservative state governor has returned federal money slated for trains. Hogan’s mentor Chris Christie did the same thing, and so did the governors of Florida and Wisconsin.

But here the Republican did more than table a rail project – he brought the entire elaborate and ambitiously pro-transit transportation strategy down with it, a policy carefully formulated by his predecessor and now presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, including a complicated set of gas tax, toll, and fee increases to fund the state share. Hogan first took down the State tolls, a $55 million a year give away allowing bridge and tunnel users, many of the out-of state, marginal savings in the individual pocket.

But last week’s announcement was a much more deadly blow than the first. Nobody had yet had struck down a critical transportation project with as much gusto, derision and political symbolism as Governor Larry Hogan last week. He did so without so much as a hint of a plan to aid those affected by the decision, and at such a delicate moment for both himself and for the area to be served and by extension for the country.

The ultimate symbol? On state maps that circulated online to extol the widespread road construction projects the Maryland Department of Transportation proposed, Baltimore City was shown not only to not have any such projects, it had been totally eliminated from the map.

While this last juicy detail may have been an accident, the words that Hogan chose to explain his rationale were not: “Useless, boondoggle, flawed, bad design, waste of money.” A fine collection of attributes, indeed. For rural and suburban constituents who view transit as nothing but a vehicle to spread poverty and crime, this line of thinking is practically the Gospel. “Drop dead” Baltimore!

The killing of the Red Line, a train connecting the rich and poor sides of Baltimore with a strategic station in the heart of West Baltimore, should interest the entire country for the same reasons that the city became a matter of national and international interest this past April.

To take an almost three billion dollar investment off the table for a city reeling from an unrest that occurred only two months ago, from a city that is almost 70% black and then redistribute the money to mostly white rural corners of the state requires the same chutzpah as the pronouncement of roads and bridges as a 21st century transportation policy.

The abandonment of the light rail project came after twelve years, $280 million of design expenses, and just months before a shovel would have gone into the ground. It came some 20 years after the completion of Baltimore’s last major transit investment, the “central light rail line.”
The now dead project would have connected two existing individual rail lines (one is a singular metro subway modeled after the “Great Society” Washington Metro and built only slightly after it) and, in doing so, would have finally created the first semblance of a rail transit system for the city, not an overly ambitious idea for a metro area that ranks #6 in the national congestion hit list, has one of the longest transit commute times and moves about a quarter million people on buses every day.

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