Thursday, May 10, 2018

Three year after the Red Line was killed the city is still reeling from the blow

Its coming up to the third anniversary of the memorable day when Maryland's Governor declared the largest ever infrastructure project of the State of Maryland a boondoggle and scuttled not only 13 years of engineering, design and community work but took billions of dollars away from the future of Maryland's largest city.
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Are three years enough to consider this watershed in the larger framework of the history of this city instead of the ground-level dust of the many NIMBY debates that ofte obscured the view as they do on every large transportation project? An editorial in Thursday's SUN isn't promising. It continues to litigate some details of the approved Red Line design and posits the Right Rail's "alternative" as something that one should still think about. The writer essentially concedes that Hogan had a point when he railed against the downtown tunnel and then adds a perplexing new twist by identifying as the Red Line's flaw that it didn't exclusively serve those who are transit dependent.
While the Red Line would have served several impoverished black neighborhoods in West Baltimore, the eastern leg of the line would have primarily served affluent white areas along the waterfront.
There is overwhelming evidence that car-owning residents of affluent areas in Baltimore generally shun mass transit. Critics who have pilloried Governor Hogan for his decision on the Red Line do not appear to have considered whether it is sound transportation planning to spend an enormous sum of taxpayer money on a tunnel in order to provide transit to an area where ridership would likely be weak. These critics have likewise failed to present a convincing rationale as to why publicly funded economic development, along with years of disruption, should be directed to sections of the city where private development is strong.  (Op-ed by Christopher Muldor)
It takes a good bit of chutzpah to justify Hogan's robbery under the guise of equity! As if equity means to connect vulnerable communities of poor people without a car to other poor people without a car and not to connect vulnerable people to jobs, services and opportunities. Muldor, the op-ed writer, also misses entirely what it takes to tee up a major transportation project when he nonchalantly maintains that "Rejection of the Red Line does not mean that the only alternative is no new light rail line".
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Contrary to what he says, that is exactly what it means! The last three years should have been enough to prove it. To yank a plan that had 13 years of design, vetting, community input, environmental and federal approvals worth almost a quarter billion dollars means to set the region back not only by those years but also all the additional time it took to develop a consensus in the shape of the 2000 regional rail plan. So with anything on a similar scale but different we are talking about almost 20 years before a shovel could go into the ground. This City can't afford to wait that long, whether one looks at job access, equity, congestion, crash rates or air pollution or the general lack of competitiveness that results from lacking good transportation.

Notice it took the region until this year to awake from its shock and arrive at a consensus in Annapolis that a new regional transit plan is needed. The city delegation was able to hitch a small funding request to the huge needs that the DC region had meticulously documented. So there is some money for a multimodal regional plan now, but anybody can imagine how tired people will be when they are asked once again to convene to develop a new transit plan vison!

Meanwhile where has this city gone in the last three years? Notice how Baltimore's path diverges in almost every respect from what most larger American cities are doing:  We are one of only two large US cities where population is going down, in spite of the much touted bus reform our bus ridership decline is in the top tier, we are the only one of a very few cities where crime is up, pedestrian crashes are up as well but the number of restaurants is down. Cynicism is way up.
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Some people will certainly object to any notion that these dire trends are caused by the Governor killing the Red Line. Sure, there isn't just one single cause, but what is to be expected if a city desperately in need of a shot in the arm gets robbed of three billion dollars that don't any longer flow into the local or regional economy but go for far-flung highways instead? The economic and the psychological toll of the governor's transit decision cannot be overestimated. A glance at the Purple Line, the sister project that Hogan let survive, albeit barely and on a a very strict financial diet, is enough to prove that even a hobbled project can leverage optimism, economic development and an entirely new perspective. Baltimore Avenue in College Park alone is proof that the promise of the Purple Line has tipped the long ailing corridor towards progress.

It is nice that the competing Democratic candidates for the governor's office all state that the Red Line is still needed but their chances to have to put their words into action are small in a State that in some kind of masochism likes to bash its own central city without which the State would barely be more than a suburb of DC.

Sure, Baltimore needs to preserve the already designed Red Line option and the associated right of way for the case that inside 20 years a new political constellation on the state and federal level would allow the project to re-emerge like a phoenix from the ashes. Baltimore, meanwhile, should move forward with community and economic development around some of the transportation nodes already considered as part of the Red Line station planning such as the West Baltimore Ice House, the Metro West office complex, and the Crown Cork and Seal complex in Highlandtown, all of which would make such a rail investment more viable.

Sure, the region needs to update its regional transit plan, not only to be more intermodal (not just rail) but also to be more prepared for new technologies which will inevitable revolutionize the transit industry, even if it won't be flying taxis one can hope. It may well be that eventually a new alternative of transit emerges which can move the region forward in as big a way as the Red Line would have done it. Repainted buses and additional beltway lanes sure ain't it. They don't give Baltimore the transportation lift it needs. And a re-opening the quibbles about the Red Line won't do it either.

A better understanding about how Maryland's economy really works and what role Baltimore plays in it would be a good start. So would be a serious resolve to truly address the lack of equity.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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