CROSSING THE LINE

This light rail train would help connect Baltimore’s most disadvantaged residents to jobs

Central Maryland Transportation Alliance

Fighting unemployment means giving people access to jobs. And in cities, one of the best ways to do that is to expand public transit.

That’s why some in Baltimore see the Red Line, a proposed light rail train that would run through some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, as a powerful tool for making the city a more equitable place. They’re anxious to see if the 14-mile line will win final approval from Maryland’s Republican governor, who says he’ll make a decision by the end of this month.

Baltimore has a pretty small transit system compared with other big cities in the northeast, like Philadelphia or Boston. But 31 percent of households in the city don’t have a car—thousands of residents depend on public transit to get to work. Meanwhile, unemployment among young black men in the city was 37 percent in 2013, compared to 10 percent among white men of the same age.

“People are cut off from economic opportunity by the cost of transportation,” Brian O’Malley, the President of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, told Fusion. “The transportation network does a good job at getting you downtown, where there are good jobs if you have a four-year college degree, but it doesn’t get you to the edges of the city, where there are good jobs in manufacturing, transportation, warehousing and logistics,” and other industries.

Protests that swept the city in late April showed just how disconnected and disadvantaged some neighborhoods and residents are. “The protests were principally about what happened to Freddie Gray in the van, but they also drew attention to issues that affect the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived and a lot of neighborhoods in the region—and access to jobs is one of those,” O’Malley said.

That’s where the Red Line comes in. Two thirds of all jobs in the city will be located within a half-mile of the line’s route by 2030, according to the Greater Baltimore Committee. It would go through some of the neighborhoods where residents face the highest commute times and the highest unemployment rates. Building the line would also create thousands of construction jobs.

A map of the Red Line's route overlaid on poverty data for Baltimore. Route via Baltimore Department of Transportation, poverty map via The New York TimesOmar Bustamente / Fusion

A map of the Red Line's route overlaid on poverty data for Baltimore. Route via Baltimore Department of Transportation, poverty map via The New York Times

Currently, the city’s only subway and light rail lines run north and south, so the Red Line would connect a new swathe of the city to the existing network. Notably, it would pass nearby Gray’s neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. (It would also run near Leakin Park, where the body was dumped in the murder case featured in the popular podcast Serial.)

“Residents in Sandtown-Winchester and throughout Baltimore need access to good-paying jobs,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, who represents Baltimore, told Fusion in a statement. “[The Red Line] will connect residents throughout the City of Baltimore to new economic opportunities.”

A rendering of the Red Line.Baltimore City Department of Transportation

A rendering of the Red Line.

The federal government has already committed to funding $900 million of the $2.9 billion plan, which has been in the works for more than a decade. That funding would be lost if the project is canceled. But some say the price tag is just too expensive.

The future of the line is in the hands of Maryland’s new governor, Republican Larry Hogan, who expressed skpeticism of the cost during his 2014 campaign. Hogan said this week that he would make a decision on approving the line by the end of June, and spokesperson Erin Montgomery declined to give any further updates. Hogan did include the state funding for the line in his first 2015 budget.

If Hogan approves the rail, construction is scheduled to begin at the end of this year and trains would start running in 2022.

Hogan is also expected to announce his approval or rejection of a second planned light rail line, the Purple Line, that would go through Washington, D.C. suburbs and receive similar federal funding.

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