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Conservatives, Light Transit, Baltimore and the Urban Question

Baltimore, synonym for how conservatives fight cities

The name of my hometown by choice, Baltimore, Maryland, has lately become a synonym for America's urban condition. Baltimore: it stands for police violence and the war on drugs, urban poverty, and the country's historic and unresolved problems with race.
 
Baltimore stands for the growing chasm between haves and have nots. But it also stands for the sought after characteristics or resurgent and thriving cities – it's hip, authentic, home to first rate anchor institutions, possesses an innovative, creative vibe, and with some very successful examples of economic recovery, can serve as a model for other legacy cities.
Baltimore unrest 2015


After last week, Baltimore also stands as the latest example of the gruesome damage that can be wrought by a conservative governor willing to undermine a more predominantly liberal urban center for political gain.
 
Maryland's governor, Larry Hogan, battling his own mortality having recently been diagnosed with cancer, called a press conference just a few days after revealing this diagnosis during which he delivered a fatal blow to the Baltimore Red Line.
 
The Red Line, a nearly $3 billion transit project, is a fully designed surface-subway light rail line, shovel ready and even recommended by the Federal Transit Administration to receive the very scarce and coveted "New Starts" funding.
 
The Governor approved another light rail project, the $2.5 billion Purple Line in the D.C. suburbs, though with severe conditions that may ultimately prove to be fatal, including a slashed State funding portion down 75% to a measly $168 million. He did all this in the name of "roads and bridges for every county in the state." Yes, that's right, new transportation policy is all about asphalt and concrete!

This is not the first time a conservative state governor has returned federal money slated for trains. Hogan's mentor Chris Christie did the same thing, and so did the governors of Florida and Wisconsin.
 
But here the Republican did more than table a rail project – he brought the entire elaborate and ambitiously pro-transit transportation strategy down with it, a policy carefully formulated by his predecessor and now presidential candidate Martin O'Malley, including a complicated set of gas tax, toll, and fee increases to fund the state share. Hogan first took down the State tolls, a $55 million a year give away allowing bridge and tunnel users, many of the out-of state, marginal savings in the individual pocket.
 
But last week's announcement was a much more deadly blow than the first. Nobody had yet had struck down a critical transportation project with as much gusto, derision and political symbolism as Governor Larry Hogan last week. He did so without so much as a hint of a plan to aid those affected by the decision, and at such a delicate moment for both himself and for the area to be served and by extension for the country.

The ultimate symbol? On state maps that circulated online to extol the widespread road construction projects the Maryland Department of Transportation proposed, Baltimore City was shown not only to not have any such projects, it had been totally eliminated from the map.
 
While this last juicy detail may have been an accident, the words that Hogan chose to explain his rationale were not: "Useless, boondoggle, flawed, bad design, waste of money." A fine collection of attributes, indeed. For rural and suburban constituents who view transit as nothing but a vehicle to spread poverty and crime, this line of thinking is practically the Gospel. "Drop dead" Baltimore!

The killing of the Red Line, a train connecting the rich and poor sides of Baltimore with a strategic station in the heart of West Baltimore, should interest the entire country for the same reasons that the city became a matter of national and international interest this past April.
 
To take an almost three billion dollar investment off the table for a city reeling from an unrest that occurred only two months ago, from a city that is almost 70% black and then redistribute the money to mostly white rural corners of the state requires the same chutzpah as the pronouncement of roads and bridges as a 21st century transportation policy.
Light Rail is flourishing in cities across the US.
Here Charlotte, N.C

The abandonment of the light rail project came after twelve years, $280 million of design expenses, and just months before a shovel would have gone into the ground. It came some 20 years after the completion of Baltimore's last major transit investment, the "central light rail line."
 
The now dead project would have connected two existing individual rail lines (one is a singular metro subway modeled after the "Great Society" Washington Metro and built only slightly after it) and, in doing so, would have finally created the first semblance of a rail transit system for the city, not an overly ambitious idea for a metro area that ranks #6 in the national congestion hit list, has one of the longest transit commute times and moves about a quarter million people on buses every day.

But Hogan not only heaped derision on the planned project, he didn't spare its 20 year old predecessor either which he taunted as "the second worst performing light rail line in the country." Whatever flaws that earlier system has stem from doing it on the cheap, the precise medicine Hogan has in mind for whatever transit he may one day support. Insult to injury, quite a change of language and heart for somebody who had just recently declared his love for this city, and seen himself as its savior by sending the National Guard to quell the unrest. Hogan is known to take cues and support from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, so maybe it should be if no surprise that the affable
Light rail in a tunnel is not unusual: Seattle station
(photo: ArchPlan)
Hogan, courageous in facing his illness, could also be poisonous and possibly vindictive. Obviously he sees the recent urban unrest not as the result of neglect but as motivation for further neglect or even punishment.
 

Federal aid for transit

Clearly, supporters, transit experts and the Federal Transit Administration have quite a different assessment of the Red Line project. As the leader of the regional business association GBC put it, no transit project of this scale would make it that far if it was poorly designed. Baltimore Sun commentator Dan Rodricks summarized the project this way:
[the Red Line] .. would have created jobs during construction and better connected people to jobs after that. In fact, Hogan killed the Red Line just two weeks after the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's "opportunity collaborative" pointed out the profound need for public transportation to address the economic disparities that surfaced for the whole world to see after the April riots.
What has happened here? It appears that Hogan's decision is just one other link in a chain of decisions of Republican governors who have decided to take the country on a different course, full steam backwards, as it were.

Consider the matter of collaboration, consensus building and rational discourse. These are all apparently despised by leaders that go out, stand in front of a microphone and simply announce. In spite of his early assurances to be a governor for all, Hogan's transportation decision was not the result of collaboration or even deliberation. After months of guessing, the transit agency, the mayor, delegates, senators and the congressional delegation all learned about the decision the same way everybody else did, by tuning into press conference on local TV.

Today federal dollars are scarce and over 30 or so cities are vying for New Starts money that only about half a dozen places are actually able to get. Baltimore was one of those places. The federal portion assigned to the Red Line will not sit around for long, neither the $100 million apportioned for this year nor the remaining $800 million. Procedures for whatever money are grueling, tedious and time consuming.
 
The time needed from conception to realization of large investments is so much longer than the term of a governor that interfering with the arc of such projects on the basis of the quadrennial horizon of politicians is a travesty. But the US is the home of these type travesties over and over again.
 
That is why the U.S. still has not built a single mile of real high speed rail and most cities have transit that is anemic at best. How can any governor who cares about resources leave that kind of federal money earmarked for his state on the table? Sheer grandstanding. Look what a tough and principled guy I am!

The Republican governor's announcement that his administration plans to spend nearly two billion dollars on paving "in every single county of the state" flies in the face of austerity. These road projects never have to demonstrate economic or even transportation benefits the same rigorous way transit projects have to prove their worth.
 
Killing the three billion dollar transit project and scaling the state's funding on the other back by 75% came in the same week as the decisions of the Supreme Court to uphold the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage. It was also the week when South Carolina decided to take the Confederate flag off its state house and Obama had to provide the eulogy for nine African Americans slain because of racial hatred. On first glance all these items seem totally unrelated, but are the really?

Drop dead!

Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore
at the Easter Parade a couple years back
(photo: ArchPlan)
The local alternative weekly, Baltimore City Paper, read Hogan's message as "Drop Dead, Baltimore" and many saw it that way as well. Social media is lighting up with comments from Hogan's suburban and rural conservative base in which in thinly veiled racism Baltimore is considered a hell hole that costs too much money, can't be trusted, is corrupt and nothing but a pet project of the liberal elite.
 
By bashing the Red Line as a badly designed "boondoggle" that was nothing but a waste of money Hogan consciously or inadvertently fueled that stale narrative. As the City Paper observes, the new Republican state policies are not only consistent, they come one after the other:
 
The moves are in line with Hogan's priorities and policy choices in his first year, which have tended to favor the suburbs and rural areas over the city, the rich over the poor, and private over public. For example, the same week he announced cuts to fees on the Bay Bridge, declaring "your summer vacation just got cheaper," he approved $30 million to build a much-reviled youth jail in Baltimore.
 
Seeing roads as an investment, transit as waste, cities as bottomless barrels subsidized by thriving suburbs and rural areas, glorifying individual freedom over the common good and a fiction of pure American heritage over diversity is all part of a stale narrative that demographic trends and the needs 
Artscape  Baltimore, the largest art festival in
the country
of a modern society inevitably renders increasingly obsolete.

But even in a conservative portfolio the announcement of the "roads and bridges" policy sticks out as a quick glance to Houston, Dallas, and Salt Lake City shows, who all build new light rail as have the traditional car-fixated cities of Los Angeles, Denver or Phoenix.
 
These places seem to have understood that transportation is intertwined not only with energy, air quality and congestion but with economic development, social justice and equity.
 
Incidentally, these disparate topics were first connected by President George Bush, the elder, when he enacted ISTEA, the Surface Transportation Act. Hogan's full-term abortion of the Baltimore transit project takes down so much more than just a transit project.

As the Baltimore Neighborhood indicator Alliance had analyzed in 15 years of data tracking: "there is no stronger indicator for disinvested communities than the length of their commute times."
 
The places with Baltimore's longest commutes? West Baltimore. Maryland's governor did not just argue that the Red Line may not be quite good enough, he gave 12 years of planning and the consensus demand of communities, stakeholders, institutions, industries and non-profits for this project the thumbs down.
 
One and a half years of work by 14 communities doing monthly station area planning sessions, the signatures under the "community compact" of over sixty stakeholders, the City and the State committing to leveraging new transit for better communities, all that went not only, poof, the governor gave all the finger by calling the project useless and a waste of money.

Of course, the tale of the Red Line is not entirely black and white, in whatever direction one wants to take the metaphor, there aren't just heroes and villains. As in any metro area, the story of a major transit project has many twists and turns, even turncoats and fractured allegiances, some typical for places under stress.
 
Still, blaming the city leaders or the often fractured communities for the loss is like blaming the victim. A review of the big arc of this project reveals that racial black and white stereotypes have been a factor at almost every milestone, even now in the feud between a female black Mayor and the white male governor.
 
The Port of Baltimore is still a economic engine and is
the largest bulk goods port on the east coast (photo ArchPlan)

The long history history of slighting West Baltimore

The concept for the east west light rail line came from a 2002 blue ribbon panel which in turn had borrowed from a late sixties rail plan under which the original metro line had been constructed. The Great Society era had envisioned hefty urban transit in the vein of San Francisco's BART and DC's Metro as compendium pieces to the preceding Interstate extravaganza which nevertheless proceeded to run roughshod over cities.

This abandoned freeway terminus was recently demolished with
TIGER funds in anticipation of the Red Line and its intermodal
West Baltimore Station connecting with commuter rail
Baltimore had fought off the worst inner urban freeways, except for West Baltimore where 3,000 mostly African American households got the shaft in favor of a mile long segment now known as the "highway to nowhere." It had envisioned metro in the median, alas no further metro lines seemed affordable for second tier cities like Baltimore. Along came cheaper light rail. Now the Red Line wanted to finally use this same easy stretch of alignment in the median.

Needless to say that the communities along the highway to nowhere, still reeling from the over 30 year old freeway injustice, did not initially receive the new transit planners with open arms. Further west, other injustices had decimated neighborhoods such as blatant "redlining" and we are not talking transit now.
 
Today, the massive traffic sifting through the corridor along Edmondson Avenue, fueled on both sides from the freeway stubs takes a high toll on quality of life. Here, residents were divided about adding a surface train to the mix. The strongest opposition, though, came from yuppies who had gentrified the now booming waterfront communities of Fells Point and Canton. After Fells Point had been placated by a sticking the proposed train into a tunnel extended from downtown, the Canton folks remained with surface tracks, and some vocal opponents didn't like it one bit.

They even tried a black and white west-east coalition, however, that never got off the ground once more residents got to work on their community station area vision plans and saw more than propaganda. Slowly, a fragile consensus evolved along the corridor on what the preferred alignment for the Red Line should be. In spite of that evolving consensus, many developers and stakeholders continued to hedge against the project not getting funding.

The Greek baker Paterakis even forced a costly last minute shift of one underground station. Against the original project schedule, construction did not slide until rail supporter Martin O'Malley was not governor anymore, giving the newly elected Hogan an unexpected opening. (The possibility that the Feds would fund but not the governor did not occur to anybody until the Democrats lost the last gubernatorial elections in a stunning upset).

Economic Reasoning veils a social agenda

Finally, let's get back to the matter of money, presumably and officially the main reason for canning the expensive project. We noted already that leaving state funds on the table is curious and spending hugely on road projects in every corner of the state doesn't smack of austerity, but maybe the most suspicious economical aspect is the increasing popular scheme of using P3's to pay for projects that government presumably can't afford.

It wasn't a surprise that Hogan would pick of the two major transit projects before him the one that would cost the state less, and that is hands down the Purple Line. Not really because of its slightly lower initial price tag but because the State's project contribution on this project was deferred to later thanks to the "design-bid-build-operate" P3 procurement model. In O'Malley's carefully calibrated funding plan, this was precisely the idea, start both projects concurrently but use initially more state funds for the Red Line, while the initial lift for the Purple Line came from the private equity partners in the project.

Previous Governor O'Malley at a Red Line event in West Baltimore
(photo: ArchPlan)

In P3 a private consortium offers the entire project and its operations in one package based on performance specifications prepared by the State consultants. The State's expenditures are mostly deferred until operation when it pays essentially a user fee to the consortium.

Just like in a mortgage, the lesser the State's down-payment, the higher the ultimate total cost for the State after the full payback period.

Typically, Republicans love P3 projects because of the high level of private involvement, (the Red Line 50% P3 portion was not enough to attract Hogan's love), but from a public policy and benefits standpoint, P3s are highly questionable, because in the end, they cost the public more.

But the ultimate economic question for transportation and infrastructure planning shouldn't be initial or total cost at all. The question should be what is the return on the investment? Or, the inverse question, can we afford to not invest?

It is just that question which is at the root of the standstill in Washington and even overseas, the ultimate question behind the brinkmanship around the Greek issue and the future of the European Union. Conservatives under the guise of fiscal austerity look at short-term costs and ignore the larger external costs that come from not investing. And as our journey through the issues of the Baltimore Red Line has shown, when conservatives talk about money they also mean a lot of other things.

The arguments about not spending money in Baltimore sound a lot like those against bailing out Greece, from disparaging the political leaders as untrustworthy loose cannons one cannot trust, to the talk about irresponsible behavior to dishing out penalties for assumed laziness. I don't want to stretch the analogies too much, but for all the differences between the Greek and the Baltimore question, it is interesting to see the parallels in the reasoning given for not investing in what is painted as a lost cause.

Baltimore Museum of Art, 100 year anniversary 2014
(photo: ArchPlan)

But Baltimore is better than that. It is not a lost cause, it is the vibrant core of this region, as the central city it is the home of the region's culture and education, the seat of its best architecture, origin of a rich history and amazing minds and it is still the place where innovation, research, art and discovery and invention happen and where young minds trend to.

Baltimore like cities around the world will persist beyond adversity, penny-pinching and wrong priorities. It will persist even though the Governor, in spite of his admirable courage in the face of disease threatening his life, has not found in his language and his policies the "open heart" that President Obama spoke about in his eulogy in Charleston.

On this Fourth of July when we may have to concede America's reduced weight as a nation in an increasingly urbanized world, American cities must be the beacons for what makes this country great. And Baltimore can and will not "drop dead".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


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