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Trump DOT Shuts Down Civil Rights Probe of Larry Hogan’s Decision to Kill the Red Line

The Red Line light rail project promised to better connect low-income black neighborhoods in Baltimore to economic opportunities, but Larry Hogan killed the project in 2015. Photo: MD GovPics/Flickr

When Maryland Governor Larry Hogan halted Baltimore's Red Line light rail project in 2015, local civil rights groups filed a complaint with U.S. DOT. They argued that Hogan violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by taking state funds for the Red Line and diverting them to road spending in whiter parts of Maryland.

In the waning days of the Obama Administration, U.S. DOT's Office of Civil Rights said it would pursue the case. Former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who grew up in a neighborhood of Charlotte that was marred by urban renewal projects, had made it a priority to address historic inequities in transportation policy, and the Red Line was shaping up as a test case of how far U.S. DOT would go in that direction.

The $2.9 billion project would have connected residents in majority black Baltimore neighborhoods to economic opportunities. Hogan's decision to spike it stood out both because he shifted money to road projects and gave the green light to the Purple Line, a rail project serving Maryland's whiter and more affluent DC suburbs. Hogan did allocate $135 million to revamp Baltimore bus service, but as advocates for the Red Line recently told the Washington Post, that's no substitute for the loss of the light rail project.

Now, six months into the Trump presidency, U.S. DOT has quietly terminated the civil rights investigation, without elaborating why. In a statement, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill castigated the decision:

We are extremely disappointed by the Transportation Department’s abrupt decision to close the Red Line complaint without any explanation whatsoever. The closure of the complaint without a single factual statement to justify the decision is an insult to the residents of Baltimore who have waited for more than 50 years to see the Red Line built. And it shamefully deepens a history of discriminatory state and federal housing and transportation policies that prevent Black Americans from having equal access to good jobs, safe neighborhoods, and quality schools.

Sadly, this summary decision by the Department of Transportation is part of what has become a predictable pattern from this administration. From the DOJ’s attempts to slow police reform efforts and walk back challenges to voter suppression, to the dismantling of the Education Department’s civil rights office, it is all too clear that this administration is prepared to abdicate its responsibility to enforce our nation’s civil rights statutes.

U.S. DOT has issued some important rulings to mitigate the racially discriminatory impact of transportation spending before. But this case could have been groundbreaking in the size and scope of the impact. If investigators had ruled against Hogan, U.S. DOT could have frozen all federal transportation funds to Maryland until the problem had been remedied.

The issue may be settled at U.S. DOT, but it's not going away. The Washington Post reports that all five Democratic challengers to Hogan's 2018 reelection run have said they'll revive the Red Line.

More recommended reading today: Systemic Failure relays the news that the Honolulu City Council passed a law making it illegal for pedestrians to look at their phones while crossing an intersection -- and there is no such law for drivers looking at their phones. And the Political Environment reports that a political showdown is brewing in Milwaukee over high-speed police chases.

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