Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who is contemplating a run for governor, said Tuesday that he would revive Baltimore’s long-planned light-rail project known as the Red Line.
The project, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) canceled in 2015, is critical to expanding transportation options and bolstering Baltimore’s economy, Baker said, and Hogan was wrong to kill it.
“There are some issues as to how you do the Red Line,” Baker said in a wide-ranging meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors Tuesday. “But the bottom line is you need transportation that allows people to get to the job centers. And it also helps you expand the commercial tax base, which means you are not relying on property taxes or income taxes.”
Hogan’s decision to kill the project, which he called a “wasteful boondoggle,” caused a rift with Baltimore leaders and the African American community, who said it would have helped create thousands of jobs and increased access to thousands more.
Baker said he is “closer to a yes” in his decision to challenge Hogan in 2018, but won’t make a final decision until after the legislative session ends in Annapolis in April.
Had he been governor, Baker would have built the Red Line, saying it would yield economic benefits similar to those the Purple Line is expected to bring the state’s Washington suburbs. He also said he would not have hesitated to support the Purple Line, as Hogan did.
Before signing off on the project, Hogan ordered planners to cut costs and insisted that Montgomery and Prince George’s counties contribute more money to the project.
The 16-mile, light-rail Purple Line linking Prince George’s and Montgomery counties is viewed as a potential magnet for redevelopment of struggling neighborhoods in suburban Maryland. Construction was expected to begin this fall, but was delayed pending resolution of a lawsuit that challenges the project on environmental grounds and argues that its ridership projections are unrealistic.
“There would never be a question of whether you do the Purple Line or not,” Baker said. “The Purple Line means you can increase the commercial tax base of the region and the state. It not just helps Prince George’s County and Montgomery County. It actually makes Anne Arundel County more competitive, Howard County more competitive and also Charles, because whether they like it or not they are in the Washington region.”
Baker, who has been touring the state in his exploration of a run for governor, said investment in infrastructure should be prioritized in areas where the state will get the best return for its investment, and those are the Washington and Baltimore regions where the jobs are and there is potential for growth.
But he also hears concerns of residents from across the state, he said. In Southern Maryland, he said, there are calls to address growing traffic congestion in Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, as well as from Prince George’s residents.
In Baltimore, he said, the state could take a larger role in investing in options to meet the transportation needs of people trying to get to and from job centers.
“Certainly the bus system there needs to be better,” he said. Longterm, he said, there have to be efforts to make downtown more viable so people don’t just drive in to work and leave at the end of the day.
Baker’s comments about the Red Line come after news that the U.S. Department of Transportation is reviewing whether Hogan’s decision to cancel the project violated civil rights regulations. The investigation follows complaints from civil rights groups challenging Hogan’s 2015 decision to kill the project, which was viewed by many in Baltimore’s African American community as part of a history of state transportation decisions that undermined their neighborhoods.
If he runs for governor, Baker said, it would be to “make sure the progress” seen in Prince George’s during his tenure as executive spreads throughout the state. In Prince George’s, Baker has made investment in Beltway communities near transit stations a priority, pushing for investment in areas long ignored by developers. For example, the county has offered incentives to encourage development around Metro stations, including New Carrollton, Largo and Prince George’s Plaza.
Baker also takes credit for expanding the county’s commercial tax base by bringing in large companies such as MGM International and making National Harbor, the county’s entertainment hub, a priority for growth.
When asked what he would do to address growing concern that the Purple Line threatens affordable housing for the county’s low-income residents, Baker said the executive and economic development offices need to take a leading role in ensuring market- and below-market-rate housing are available in areas of the county that will see redevelopment, not just around the Purple Line but also around Metro stations such as Suitland.
“It is going to be hard, but it’s got to be purposeful though,” he said.
Policy alone will not help, he said.
“You can have the policy and then you can have the force of the executive office saying we are going to be mindful of this and this is going to be something we concentrate on,” he said.