New bus sys­tem re­vives anger over lost light-rail in Bal­ti­more

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY KATHER­INE SHAVER

Sa­muel Jor­dan stood in the front row at a re­cent rally in down­town Sil­ver Spring, wait­ing for his mo­ment as about 100 tran­sit ad­vo­cates cel­e­brated new fed­eral money to build a light-rail Pur­ple Line in the Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs.

When the speeches ended and the politi­cians pre­pared to leave, Jor­dan shouted, “What about the Red Line?”

The Pur­ple Line sup­port­ers and pub­lic of­fi­cials from Mont­gomery and Prince George’s coun­ties looked con­fused. The Red Line, a 14-mile light-rail project planned for Bal­ti­more — 35 miles away — was dead. Mary­land Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) had pulled the plug al­most two years ear­lier, on the same day he gave the Pur­ple Line the go-ahead.

“What about the Red Line?” Jor­dan shouted again.

The Pur­ple Line sup­port­ers didn’t have any an­swers for Jor­dan, who later said he and other Bal­ti­more res­i­dents have been for­got­ten in Mary­land’s plans for bet­ter pub­lic trans­porta­tion.

“The D.C. sub­urbs are very im­por­tant to the gov­er­nor,” said Jor­dan, a reg­u­lar bus rider and pres­i­dent of the Bal­ti­more Tran­sit Eq­uity Coali­tion. “Mary­land has in­vested in [Metro] and the Pur­ple Line. We’ve been left be­hind.”

Lin­ger­ing anger and frus­tra­tion over the Red Line project’s demise have resur­faced this sum­mer as the Mary­land Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion has launched

Bal­ti­moreLink, a $135 mil­lion re­design of the city’s state-run bus sys­tem.

State of­fi­cials say it will bet­ter link res­i­dents to jobs and con­nect bus riders more quickly and fre­quently with the re­gion’s sub­way, light-rail and MARC com­muter rail lines. It in­cludes new bus-only lanes down­town, pri­or­ity for buses at stop­lights and more fre­quent ser­vice be­tween low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties and job cen­ters.

Ho­gan, who had called the Red Line a “waste­ful boon­dog­gle,” has called Bal­ti­moreLink “trans­for­ma­tional.” State trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials say the re­design will prove more cost-ef­fec­tive than the Red Line would have.

“It’s re­ally about wise pub­lic in­vest­ments,” Mary­land Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Pete K. Rahn said. “Bal­ti­moreLink is far bet­ter tran­sit than con­struc­tion of a Red Line. I’ll ad­mit it’s not as sexy, but the re­al­ity is we’ve pro­duced far more bang for the dol­lar than the Red Line ever would have done.”

Some crit­ics say Bal­ti­moreLink is fur­ther ev­i­dence the city has got­ten short shrift.

“He de­cided to throw peo­ple a bone,” Jor­dan said of the gov­er­nor. “In­stead of a $2.9 bil­lion rail sys­tem, we got a $135 mil­lion bus sys­tem . . . . It’s a cyn­i­cal, dis­mis­sive con­so­la­tion prize for the loss of the Red Line.”

The 16-mile Pur­ple Line project is snarled in a fed­eral law­suit filed by op­po­nents, and state of­fi­cials have said it re­mains at risk of be­ing can­celed if the court case drags on too long.

But some in Bal­ti­more say it still stings that the Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs have a chance at some­thing they lost: a rail line de­signed to re­ju­ve­nate down­trod­den ar­eas and of­fer a faster, more re­li­able al­ter­na­tive to buses stuck in traf­fic.

Al­le­ga­tions of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion linger, with civil rights ac­tivists not­ing state money des­ig­nated for tran­sit that would have served poor, African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties went in­stead to road projects in ru­ral, mostly white ar­eas of the state.

The U.S. Trans­porta­tion De- civil rights divi­sion said last week it had closed its in­ves­ti­ga­tion into two com­plaints filed by Jor­dan, another Bal­ti­more res­i­dent and civil rights ac­tivists al­leg­ing the Red Line’s can­cel­la­tion had “dis­parate im­pacts” on African Amer­i­cans.

A lawyer for the com­plainants called the end of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion “ex­tremely dis­ap­point­ing” and “in­sult­ing” to African Amer­i­cans.

“I think a lot of peo­ple in Bal­ti­more were se­verely and deeply hurt by the fact that the Pur­ple Line went for­ward and the Red Line didn’t,” said Ajmel Quereshi, se­nior coun­sel for the NAACP Le­gal De­fense Fund, which rep­re­sents Bal­ti­more res­i­dent Earl An­drews and BRIDGE, a faith-based or­ga­ni­za­tion, in one of the civil rights com­plaints.

“Given the racial com­po­si­tion of the two ar­eas,” Quereshi said, “there were peo­ple in the Red Line cor­ri­dor who felt it was con­tin­u­ing a long his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tion against African Amer­i­cans in Bal­ti­more.”

The Red Line also has be­come fod­der for Mary­land’s 2018 gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tion. All five Democrats who have an­nounced chal­lenges to Ho­gan have pledged to re­vive the Red Line.

About 65 per­cent of Bal­ti­more res­i­dents who use pub­lic trans­porta­tion ride buses, state of­fi­cials said, com­pared with 11 per­cent on the sub­way and 8 per­cent on the light-rail sys­tem. Red Line sup­port­ers say the city’s rail rid­er­ship has lagged be­cause there’s no true rail net­work. The sys­tem is lim­ited to one 15-mile sub­way line and 29 miles of light rail. By com­par­i­son, the Wash­ing­ton Metro sys­tem has six in­ter­sect­ing lines cov­er­ing 117 miles.

Like the Pur­ple Line, the Red Line was long planned as a miss­ing east-west link in a rail sys­tem that now runs mostly north­part­ment’s be­tween sub­urbs and the down­town. Red Line trains would have run mostly along lo­cal streets be­tween poor neigh­bor­hoods in west Bal­ti­more and Johns Hop­kins Bayview Med­i­cal Cen­ter, with a four-mile tun­nel be­neath down­town.

Brian O’Mal­ley, of the Cen­tral Mary­land Trans­porta­tion Al­liance, ticked off a list of cities — Seat­tle, Den­ver, Char­lotte, Dal­las, Min­neapo­lis — that are build­ing or ex­pand­ing rail sys­tems to re­duce the cost of liv­ing and at­tract jobs and work­ers, par­tic­u­larly tran­sit-lov­ing mil­len­ni­als. “Peo­ple are say­ing why can’t this re­gion move for­ward with some­thing?” said O’Mal­ley, whose group rep­re­sents busi­ness and civic lead­ers. “How did we find our­selves here with noth­ing to show for so many years of plan­ning?”

For about a dozen years, plan­ning for the Red and Pur­ple lines moved for­ward in tan­dem, with sup­port­ers of both say­ing Mary­land’s two largest ur­ban ar­eas needed rail to move more peo­ple amid grow­ing traf­fic con­ges­tion.

But Ho­gan had ques­tioned the cost of both tran­sit projects dur­ing a gu­ber­na­to­rial cam­paign fo­cused on more money for roads and bridges. When he can­celed the Red Line in June 2015, he also cut about $500 mil­lion from the state’s up­front con­tri­bu­tion to the more than $2 bil­lion Pur­ple Line by scal­ing it back and re­quir­ing Mont­gomery and Prince George’s coun­ties to pay more.

Can­cel­ing the Red Line meant los­ing nearly $300 mil­lion of state-funded plan­ning and en­gi­neer­ing work and turn­ing down $900 mil­lion in highly com­pet­i­tive con­struc­tion grants rec­om­mended by the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Rahn said re­cently the ad­min­is­tra­tion stands by its de­ci­sion. The Red Line’s cost pro­jec­tions, done by the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­south, tion of Demo­cratic Gov­er­nor Martin O’Mal­ley, were “hugely un­der­stated,” he said. The $2.9 bil­lion con­struc­tion bud­get, he said, “was a fiction” be­cause it didn’t in­clude some ma­jor ex­penses, such as build­ing one of the 19 sta­tions, and had se­verely low­balled the cost of dig­ging the tun­nel be­neath down­town.

“It would have gone ex­tremely over bud­get,” Rahn said.

Rahn also said the state has spent another $565 mil­lion on tran­sit im­prove­ments for the city, in­clud­ing re­plac­ing 35-year-old sub­way cars and over­haul­ing ag­ing light-rail ve­hi­cles.

He dis­missed al­le­ga­tions that can­cel­ing the Red Line had an out­size im­pact on Bal­ti­more’s African Amer­i­can res­i­dents.

“The facts do not sup­port that in any way,” Rahn said. “We’re spend­ing a tremen­dous amount for tran­sit in sup­port of the Bal­ti­more re­gion and, of course, we’re spend­ing a sig­nif­i­cant amount for the D.C. area.”

How much Bal­ti­moreLink will im­prove the lives of the city’s tran­sit-de­pen­dent res­i­dents re­mains to be seen.

Since the June 18 launch, some riders have com­plained about late buses, buses that never show up and bus stops that were nixed in the re­design. A re­cent pub­lic meet­ing on the roll­out drew sev­eral hun­dred bus riders, many of them an­gry, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports.

An­drews, the Bal­ti­more res­i­dent who filed one of the civil rights com­plaints, said he re­lies on buses to get to church, his fi­nance job at a ho­tel, and evening classes to­ward a mas­ter’s de­gree in the­ol­ogy. Since Bal­ti­moreLink started, he said, he some­times has had to trans­fer buses, adding 10 min­utes to his pre­vi­ous 40-minute ride. A trip home from Arun­del Mills Mall on a re­cent Satur­day took four hours, he said, be­cause the Bal­ti­moreLink bus never showed up.

Though An­drews said he takes tran­sit by choice, many low­in­come res­i­dents have no other op­tions. He noted the Red Line would have served im­pov­er­ished ar­eas of the city where riots broke out in April 2015, af­ter res­i­dent Fred­die Gray died in po­lice cus­tody.

“It would have im­proved the lives of pretty dis­en­fran­chised peo­ple,” An­drews said.

“And then you see the Pur­ple Line mov­ing for­ward . . . . I don’t be­moan the Pur­ple Line get­ting on board in Prince George’s and Mont­gomery County. That’s great. But to see it move for­ward while our hopes are dashed here — it’s not a good feel­ing.”

“Bal­ti­moreLink is far bet­ter tran­sit than con­struc­tion of a Red Line . . . . The re­al­ity is we’ve pro­duced far more bang for the dol­lar than the Red Line ever would have done.” Pete K. Rahn, Mary­land trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary


The Red Line, an al­ter­na­tive to buses, “would have im­proved the lives of pretty dis­en­fran­chised peo­ple,” said Earl An­drews, who filed a civil rights complaint.


A woman waits for a bus near Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity as another bus passes on Or­leans Street. The 14-mile Red Line light-rail project, which Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) can­celed, was de­signed to of­fer a faster, more re­li­able al­ter­na­tive to buses that get stuck in traf­fic.

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