Maryland Robbed Transit to Pay for Highways, So U.S. DOT Launched a Civil Rights Probe

Baltimore transit map.
Baltimore's Red Line would have served residents of some the city's poorest areas. But Governor Larry Hogan killed it and spent the money on highways. Map: Peter Dovak via Greater Greater Washington

On the last day of the Obama presidency, U.S. DOT announced it will investigate whether Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s unilateral decision to cancel the Baltimore Red Line light rail project violates federal civil rights law. U.S. DOT will also look into whether the state’s overall transportation spending discriminates against people of color.

The investigation was prompted by a civil rights complaint from the local chapters of the NAACP and the ACLU. Baltimore officials had already sunk $230 million into planning for the $2.9 billion Red Line project, which would have served the low-income west side. But after Hogan was elected, he cancelled the project unilaterally in June, 2015, and shifted the spending to highway projects in more suburban, whiter parts of the state. As a consolation, he offered Baltimore $135 million for bus upgrades.

When the complaint was filed last December, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund said Hogan’s decision was part of a “devastating history of transportation decisions that have disfavored African-American residents of Baltimore City.”

According to the complaint [PDF], 44 percent of households along the proposed path of the Red Line don’t own cars. Compared to current bus routes, the project would would have reduced travel times to some major destinations by about 50 percent. Using the state’s own model, the benefits of Hogan’s decision to instead spend the money on highways flowed overwhelmingly to white residents at the expense of black residents, according to a transportation economist hired by the civil rights groups.

If the civil rights review finds the state’s policies to have a “disparate impact” on disadvantaged populations, U.S. DOT can withhold funding until the problem is corrected. In 2000, or instance, U.S. DOT ruled against Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson in a similar situation, and the state was forced to set aside money for the Milwaukee streetcar. In 1996, LA County MTA agreed to spend more on bus service after a civil rights complaint alleged its subway spending overlooked people of color.

Notably, U.S. DOT is not limiting its investigation to the Red Line decision, but will examine transportation planning throughout the entire state, according to Curbed. That’s broader in scope than previous civil rights investigations, and could lead to some striking results.

Ajmel Quereshi of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund told Curbed that the Red Line might not get built, but Maryland may have to direct more transportation resources to Baltimore. Despite the transition in the White House, Quereshi expects the investigation to proceed.

  • bolwerk

    One of the overlooked problems with American transit costs and absurd construction timeframes is it gives people like Hogan and Christie a chance to do stuff like this. They shouldn’t have that chance. If projects like the Red Line were completed in a sane time frame, they could be completed in a typical governor’s term.

  • S.P. Miller

    I think I somewhat agree with you, but the fact of the matter is that highway projects take a similar amount of time – a EIS level of Federal environmental documentation will push a highway project to (at least) 5 years from the time planning initially begins.

    The Red Line had a particularly circuitous path, but the fact of the matter is that Gov. Hogan unilaterally canceled the line in order to appease the folks that turned up in 2014 to vote for him. He canceled the line for “cost savings”, but then proceeded to devote all those “cost savings” to highway projects with the vast, vast majority of the money going to counties outside of Baltimore & Baltimore City.

    Again, I agree with you the transportation infrastructure process is long. But similarly sized highway projects almost always stay in the programmed funding scheme, no matter if it is a Democrat or a Republican holding the governors office. That is, sadly, not the case for large transit projects.

  • bolwerk

    There is no excuse for highway projects being so long either, but RWAs don’t go out of their way to destroy highway projects. They target transit projects.

  • Very important story – great reporting Angie.

    The book Seeking Spatial Justice (by Edward Soja) analyzes the organizing and coalition-building that played a major role in the 1996 LA Bus Riders Union consent decree, as well as the Bush Administration’s efforts to limit its spread.

    When we talk about organizing against Trumpism, transportation issues are worthy of massive attention.

  • david vartanoff

    Indeed, thank you, Angie. Redlining by transit desert is every bit as evil as redlining housing.

  • Well, took 50 years to build MD-100 ICC. Then in Frederick, they been waiting for close to 35 years, just to get six lanes on I-270 from MoCo to city. It often takes close to two hours to go 35 miles from Frederick to 270 split one way daily.

  • kclo3

    At least Baltimore has municipal and regional organizations interested in improving transit at all, and has the evidence to back it up. In Philadelphia, no elected official gives two sh*ts about transit in the first place and the MPO dedicates all funding to highway projects anyway, so they’re effectively protected from federal probes and suits even though mobility access has been shown to be blatantly inequitable.

  • Patrick Jackson

    How did Maryland even elect a Republican?

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