As the nation’s first city to enforce racially determined land covenants in real estate and to codify redlining, residential segregation in Baltimore has deep roots. Though racial segregation has been outlawed, its effects can still be seen to this day. The Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition (BTEC) believes the Red Line light rail initiative could help end the persisting segregation in Baltimore.
The Red Line was originally conceptualized in the 1960s as an east-west mass transit light rail system to connect West Baltimore communities, Fells Point, Canton and the Bayview Medical Center.
In June 2015, Governor Larry Hogan announced that his administration would not move forward with the project. He redirected funding intended for the Red Line to roads and the Purple Line in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The cancellation of the Red Line was briefly investigated by the U.S. Department of Transportation after the NAACP filed a complaint arguing that reallocating the funds disproportionately benefited white communities over Black communities, but the investigation was closed without any findings.
President of the BTEC Samuel Jordan is no stranger to grassroots campaigns; he has an extensive history of community organizing in both Washington, D.C. and Baltimore around issues such as health care and housing equity. In an interview with The News-Letter, Jordan described how the cancellation of the Red Line is a civil rights issue.
“Baltimore and Larry Hogan are insistent upon maintaining the segregationist history of Baltimore in public transportation,” he said. “Larry Hogan canceled the Red Line, but he approved the Purple Line that goes from Bethesda to New Carrollton.”
Jordan spoke about how communities with the least access to public transportation are the ones who need it most, and they’re most often communities of color.
“If you commute by car, you have access to all of the jobs in this region within an hour. If you commute by public transportation, you only have access to 9% of the jobs in this region,” he said. “That means that a person who is lucky enough to have one of those $10 to $11 an hour jobs somewhere in the county must be captive for three to four hours every day in a dysfunctional transportation system.”
By BTEC’s calculation, the impact on the economy from this loss in wages from increased commute time adds up to at least $375 million.
Senior Emily Bodden discussed her experience commuting to West Baltimore in an interview The News-Letter. She explained that poor public transit made it exceptionally difficult to get to work.
“I used to have a job where I used [public transportation] every day over the summer, but now I have stopped because it's impossible,” she said. “Honestly, a lot of the reason I quit my last job is because it took me three hours to get to work.”
She discussed how especially during the pandemic, overcrowded busses added stress to her commute. Bodden added that oftentimes Hopkins students do not seem to focus on public transportation, relying instead on Blue Jay Shuttles or Uber and Lyft.
Bodden expressed her support for the Red Line, noting how it would create opportunities for underserved communities.
“It should definitely be implemented in order for residents of Baltimore's east and west sides to be able to succeed and get to work at a reasonable time and [not] feel like they need a car that they can’t afford,” she said.
Jordan also discussed what is often called the “last-mile barrier” in public transportation. He explained that because the current bus system does not bring people into commercial city centers, where jobs are often located.
He pointed to the example of Ruxton; there are no direct public transit routes from Baltimore to Ruxton, and no stops within Ruxton itself. From the nearest public transportation stop, it’s a one to two mile walk along the side of the road to even reach the city.
“If you link these last-mile barriers where transit stops around the city, what you have, in fact, is a fence around the city of Baltimore,” Jordan said. “That's a fence that limits most directly the Black community from traveling outside the city.”
Jordan also outlined the next steps for creating a transit line in Baltimore, stating that the project must center the concerns of the communities most directly impacted and use sustainable infrastructure to be a climate-friendly plan.
Looking to the future, Jordan is optimistic about the positive impacts a light rail system could have in Baltimore.
“From the Red Line, we project $3 to 6.5 billion of transit-oriented development. There's a bigger boost to the economy than any other project on a 25-year horizon for the city and region,” he said. “We have to capture that. Mass transit is also one of the key factors in a reasoned and intelligent response to the threat of climate change.”
BTEC’s next steps include collecting at least 10,000 valid petition signatures by August 1, 2022, to show support for the construction of the Red Line. Jordan also hopes that the MDOT MTA will be supplanted by a community-based-and-oriented organization acting as a Baltimore regional transportation authority.
“Structural racism, in transportation particularly, can only be challenged by structural change,” he said. “Public transportation is racially conflicted wherever people of color live in this nation, and [Baltimore] is no exception.”