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. Department of Transportation’s 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 north-south, 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 administration 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 outsized 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 low-income 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.”