To Zac Blanchard, an assistant football coach at Digital Harbor High School in Federal Hill, the proposed Red Line could be “the difference between kids showing up to first period or not.”
To Bakari Height — a Gay Street resident who relies on mass transit, and a transit organizer — development of the east-west line is the difference between him staying in Baltimore or moving out of the city. “If this doesn’t work, I can’t stay here,” Height said.
The Maryland Transit Administration recently held its first Red Line public engagement sessions since Gov. Wes Moore declared the megaproject back on track. And Baltimore residents who turned out had plenty of questions — will it be a light rail line as originally envisioned before scuttled by Moore’s Republican predecessor, Larry Hogan, or a rapid bus line?
How much will it cost? Is the route going to be same?
MTA officials don’t know the answers yet, but that’s why they wanted to ask residents what their thoughts and concerns were.
At meeting places along the proposed Red Line corridor from Woodlawn to Bayview, a dozen or so MTA employees stood alongside neatly printed red and white infographics and fielded questions, concerns and even some rants over a total of about 18 hours. And it’s understandable — for many new residents, the lack of quick, reliable east-west transit is a confusing knock on Maryland’s largest city.
And to some long-term residents, it’s a top-tier promise they are worried could be broken again.
Old vs. new
MTA Administrator Holly Arnold, who attended an open house Tuesday at Hampstead Hill Academy, across from Patterson Park, said one of her agency’s goals was to engage new area residents who may not even know what the proposed Red Line is.
“There are a lot of folks here who just weren’t here 10 years ago, or are somewhat familiar with the project but don’t know the details,” she said.
Among those newcomers is Derek Moore, a 31-year-old who moved to the Madison Park neighborhood two years ago. A former resident of Atlanta and New York City, Moore doesn’t own a car and relies on a north-south light rail line to get to work. He sees the potential for the Red Line to connect a “disjointed” transit system and hopes that it paves the way for more development.
“Economic mobility, social mobility — transportation is the core of that,” said Moore, who attended the July 27 open house at the War Memorial in downtown.
Melanie Ray is another relatively new Baltimorean. Ray, 30, moved to the city in 2015, shortly after Hogan canceled the original Red Line, and recently bought a house in Greektown. An architect for affordable housing projects, Ray said having reliable and effective transit “just makes sense for the people I’m designing for.”
Like many residents who shared their thoughts at the open houses, Moore and Ray would prefer to see a rail line built. The question of light rail vs. bus-rapid transit — a bus line with stand-alone lanes and stops that cannot be accessed by other vehicles — prompted a lot of chin scratching from new residents, and ire from some longtime residents.
Except for Emily Winbush-Jacquette, 73, of Gwynn Oak. She said that she was intrigued by the idea of bus-rapid transit, and wondered if it could help relieve the downtown congestion that buses now get stuck in. However, the lifelong Baltimorean isn’t a flat “no” on rail. Trains often bring vitality to a community, she said, recalling how she rode the Baltimore subway every Sunday after it opened just to “get away from home for a bit.”
“I just hope that they fill the needs of the people, of the neighborhoods, so people can get where they need to go,” she said.
The light rail vs. bus-rapid transit debate seemed to be most on people’s minds at the open houses. Members of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, which has long backed the Red Line, attended every open house with signs that read, “No bus rapid transit.”
But not everyone is on board with the train concept. Kathy Train (“like the one I’m not in favor of,” she quipped) and her Boston Street neighbors have long opposed elements of the Red Line plan.
Speaking at Hampstead Hill Academy on Aug. 1, Train and three neighbors said they’re mainly concerned about any effort to tunnel through historic Fells Point, which they say would threaten what they believe is already unstable infrastructure along the waterfront. They are urging the MTA to consider moving the corridor further north so that it extends along Monument Street, where they say people more likely to use transit live.
Neil Castine, 39, and Ezra Begun, 41, think that picking light rail would show “commitment to a route.” They said they feel safer on the light rail than they do on public buses.
“I was worried I’d be the only YIMBY here,” said Castine, using a humorous acronym for “Yes in my backyard.”
Blanchard, a 30-year-old assistant coach for the Digital Harbor High football team, lives in Federal Hill. He’s taken an interest in the Red Line largely out of concern for his players.
“I’d be taking kids home after games, and some would live like 90 minutes away via transit,” he said at the July 27 open house. He noted that because of school choice, many Digital Harbor students don’t live close to the Federal Hill campus and have to take the bus, sometimes transferring multiple times.
He noted that some kids don’t sign up for extracurricular activities because they don’t have a ride after school. “And the ripple effects of this are obvious,” he said.
For Donn Worgs, a 21-year resident of Windsor Mill and a political science professor at Towson University, the Red Line will only succeed if it’s part of a broader system that increases connectivity for people across the entire city.
“One line is not the solution,” Worgs said at the July 30 open house at Woodlawn High School. “I don’t know if that integrated system transformation is at the forefront just yet ― I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the thinking, but I haven’t seen it yet.”
Worgs thinks communities that rely on transit — namely households without cars — or that have historically been isolated should be the top priority of planners.
“How do you reintegrate communities that are more than disenfranchised, but isolated from the economy?” he mused at the open house. Transportation is a huge part of the answer, he said.
Venroy July, 40, of Hollins Market, worries that the voices of those in his West Baltimore community might get lost in the mix. July lives steps from the University of Maryland BioPark, the site of the lone weekend open house, but “never heard a word about it.” He was able to attend the Hampstead Hill open house, the last in the summer series.
“You have to be more thoughtful about how you get information out and where you’re getting it from,” July said. “If you are only getting input from affluent communities, I don’t know what you get out of that information.”
Del. Sheila Ruth, who represents West Baltimore County, hopes that the Red Line will play a part in transforming and revitalizing those areas where her constituents live. She said that it “dovetails nicely” with other development efforts in the county.
Ruth said most of the constituents with whom she’s spoken are skeptical of bus rapid-transit and would prefer to see light rail. Asked if any constituents expressed fears about crime, she said mostly no. That being said, some residents will always carry that worry.
She chalks those concerns up to “an old narrative about transit,” citing a study about Los Angeles’ metro rail expansion that found no correlation between more train ridership and crime.
At each open house, it was impossible to ignore that MTA has been here before. Similar open house meetings occurred as early as 2004 for a project now more than 20 years in the making.
“There are a lot of questions about, again, ‘Why can’t we just bring back the old Red Line? Why do we have to go through this process?’ And so it’s a lot of education about why,” said Arnold, the MTA administrator. She recognized that the 2015 cancellation of the project has left some skeptical, and she said she “can’t blame them.”
“People put 10 years of their lives into this, and then it was pulled away,” said Arnold. “Keep working with us, it’s our job to restore and regain that trust.”
After reviewing the public comments, Arnold and her team hope to hold another round of open houses in the fall.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.