Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ajmel Quereshi as an NAACP attorney. He is an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. This version has been corrected.
The U.S. Department of Transportation will conduct a “review” of transportation projects in Maryland to determine whether state officials violated civil rights regulations in their policies and decisions.
The review, announced in a letter sent by a department official on the last full day of the Obama administration, was in response to complaints by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other groups challenging Gov. Larry Hogan’s 2015 decision to cancel a long-planned light-rail project in Baltimore known as the Red Line.
The decision by Hogan (R) was viewed by many in Baltimore’s African American community as part of a history of Maryland transportation decisions that undermined their neighborhoods. The Purple Line, a light-rail project in the wealthier Washington suburbs, survived the state’s budget ax.
Federal officials “will conduct a comprehensive compliance review” to make sure the state follows a key provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in programs that receive federal support. The Jan. 19 letter was addressed to Hogan and the state’s top transportation official.
Ajmel Quereshi, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who helped file the federal complaint against Hogan’s decision, said the more than $1.2 billion the state had planned to spend on the Red Line was redirected to other purposes, including a statewide road and bridge building effort. That brought special harm to African Americans, Quereshi said.
“That shifting of the funds … had a grossly disproportionate impact on African Americans in Baltimore and the rest of the state,” Quereshi said, adding that he was pleased the Transportation Department has broadened its examination beyond Baltimore. “Now this case is about a lot more than the Red Line, but really all the state’s transportation decisions and whether they have a discriminatory impact on African Americans in Maryland.”
Doug Mayer, communications director for Hogan, said it would be inappropriate to comment on whether the state was in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, saying that would be left to the federal review if it moves forward.
But Mayer was sharply critical of the content and timing of the DOT letter.
“I’m not going to comment on the validity or necessity of a supposed review, announced by the previous administration on their last legal day in office in response to an action that took place nearly two years earlier,” Mayer said. He said the Red Line “never made any transportation or fiscal sense.” And he noted that Baltimore is a major recipient of state resources.
As part of the state’s six-year transportation plan, “Baltimore City receives more funding than any other jurisdiction in the state,” between $7 billion and $8 billion dollars, Mayer said.
The letter, signed by Yvette Rivera, whose title was listed as the DOT’s associate director of the Departmental Office of Civil Rights, said that “based upon the evidence gathered so far, we cannot determine whether the Governor’s decision-making process included any effort to ensure” the state and its transportation agencies had complied “with their obligations under the DOT planning regulations and Title VI.”
A spokesman for DOT said Monday that the department will “evaluate the merits of the complaint. No findings have been made at this time.”
Rivera could not be reached for comment, and a representative of the Trump transportation team did not address questions on the review.
Mayer said another contention in the letter is “flat-out ridiculous.”
Rivera wrote that “our investigation determined that all of the decisions regarding the Red Line cancellation and reallocation of funding were made unilaterally by the Office of Governor, without any consultation with the Maryland Department of Transportation.”
Mayer called that “an outright falsehood, verifiably untrue, and surprising to see from a federal agency, even on their last day in office.” He said Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn offered several times to meet with members of the civil rights office, but they declined.
The Trump administration already has moved to reverse many policies and actions taken by the Obama administration, and it was unclear how a new transportation secretary might handle the review. Trump’s pick for transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, is scheduled for a Senate committee vote on her nomination Tuesday.
Camille Hazeur, who headed the Departmental Office of Civil Rights until 2015, did not handle the Red Line complaint. But she said the decision to launch a far-reaching compliance review is a major step.
“They wouldn’t just do a compliance review, as a matter of course, for a whole state,” Hazeur said.
In many cases, state officials provide requested information and complaints are resolved through a back-and-forth between parties, Hazeur said. For whatever reason, that did not occur here, she said.