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This 2013 photo depicts a sign near the West Baltimore MARC train station. (File)

Complaint claims nixing Red Line a civil rights violation

Map of proposed Red Line route.

Map of proposed Red Line route.

Advocacy groups are asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to determine if the Hogan administration violated federal law earlier this year when plans for the $2.9 billion Red Line were scrapped and funds were shifted to road and bridge projects outside of Baltimore, a decision the groups claim had a disproportionately negative impact on the city’s black residents.

The project, designed to connect the east and west sides of Baltimore with a rapid transit system, was in development for more than 15 years and expected to create 10,000 jobs before Gov. Larry Hogan announced the cancellation of the project in June, citing cost concerns, according to the complaint. Hogan made clear his opposition to the Red Line during his successful gubernatorial campaign.

The cancellation caused the state to forfeit $900 million in federal funds.

The state funds committed to the project – more than $700,000 – were redirected to the Maryland State Highway Administration for road and bridge projects. SHA does not administer roads in Baltimore.

Hogan’s decision was “the latest chapter in a long history of racially discriminatory decisions regarding the allocation of transportation and housing resources” and a blow to the black communities the Red Line would have served, according to the complaint, filed Monday on behalf of black Baltimore residents as well as the Baltimore City Branch of the NAACP and Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality Inc.

“Shifting resources from public transit in Baltimore to highways and bridges outside of the city has a discriminatory impact on African-American residents,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., said in a statement. “Baltimore residents rely on public transportation to travel to work and school. The governor has not offered an appropriate alternative to ease public transit woes in Baltimore.”

A spokesman for Hogan said in a statement the complaint has “zero credibility” and that the governor is fully committed to improving transportation in Baltimore.

“The Red Line didn’t move forward because it was poorly designed and simply unaffordable with at least a billion dollar tunnel running through the heart of the city,” said Douglass V. Mayer.

‘All necessary steps’

Activists, business leaders and activists fought for years to build the Red Line. The project’s backers called it a “jobs line” that would’ve provided a fixed-rail service that would’ve run 14.1 miles between western Baltimore County and East Baltimore, providing residents in West Baltimore with access to jobs in the thriving southeastern section of the city.

The Red Line would have benefited residents in predominantly minority areas who commuted by bus as well as drivers by easing congestion, according to the complaint. Without the project, overall traffic levels are expected to worsen and travel times will increase.

There is no “substantial, legitimate justification” for the cancellation of the Red Line, according to the complaint, and there were less discriminatory alternatives available, including an alternative version of the line or devoting funds to the city’s bus system.

The complaint was filed with the DOT’s Office of Civil Rights, which has jurisdiction over complaints of discrimination in programs which receive federal financial assistance. It asks the federal agency to find Maryland in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and “take all necessary steps” to ensure compliance.

Richard Hall, executive director of Citizens Planning & Housing Association, said nixing the Red Line not only cost the region a vital transportation link but an economic development tool in some of the most impoverished areas in the nation. He pointed out that the line, as planned, would’ve run just blocks from the home of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man whose death from injuries suffered in police custody set off rioting in the city in April.

“I can’t tell you if this will be successful, but I can understand why they lodged this complaint,” said Hall, who served as planning secretary in former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration.

Those against the project argued it was a boondoggle that could’ve been achieved for much less money by building a route that better connected with existing mass transit routes, such as the Metro that connects Owings Mills and the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus. There was also significant push back from residents in the wealthy Canton neighborhood who objected to the inconvenience of constructing the train along the traffic-packed Boston Street.

In October, Hogan unveiled a $135 million plan to update the city’s notoriously inefficient mass transit system. The plan aims to improve the system by adding high-speed bus routes with color-coded buses that link with other transit hubs in the city. But local elected officials, such as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, have been critical of the plan saying it’s a poor replacement for the Red Line.

There is no “substantial, legitimate justification” for the cancellation of the Red Line, according to the complaint, and there were less discriminatory alternatives available, including an alternative version of the line or devoting funds to the city’s bus system.

Daily Record Business Writer Adam Bednar contributed to this report.