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The missing link in Hogan’s BaltimoreLink

Kevin Kamenetz

Kevin Kamenetz

In 1965, transportation planners envisioned a six-line, futuristic subway system for the Baltimore Metro region that would generate economic development, reduce traffic congestion and complement the recently opened Baltimore Beltway. A similar vision was concurrently painted for the Washington, D.C., region.

While Washington’s first leg opened in 1976, and has transformed into the third-busiest rapid transit system in the United States after Chicago and New York City, Baltimore remains stuck in first gear.

Opening in 1983, the pared-down Baltimore version was a single rail line that connected downtown Baltimore to Owings Mills. A decade later, the central Light Rail line provided the next step in an integrated transportation system for the region. But that initial vision for a comprehensive, long-term rail line has never come to fruition. Where did it go off the rails? Look no further than Gov. Larry Hogan’s myopic decision to kill the Red Line.

After more than a decade of advocacy from civic and political leaders, Baltimore was set to add the Red Line, the area’s first east-west mass transit line, to provide an integrated component that would complement the two existing north-south lines. But with the swing of a pen, Governor Hogan kissed more than decade of smart-growth planning goodbye and then demonized the Red Line as a “boondoggle” while his transportation secretary dismissed Baltimore as just a “bus town.”

In response, Governor Hogan presented his vision for a “transformative” upgrade to the region’s transit system: BaltimoreLink, a $135 million realignment of local bus routes. He paraded across Baltimore declaring himself the savior of the region’s traffic woes thanks to this supposed color-coded cure. We must instead call BaltimoreLink what it is: a patchwork fix in the place of a substantive solution. And it is a consolation prize that attempts to pander to Baltimore after the governor failed to deliver a 21st century rail transit network.

It’s insulting

The governor himself affirmed that this project is not the first phase of development, but, as far as he is concerned, the end of it. “BaltimoreLink signifies the state’s long-term commitment to this city,” he proudly boasted. This coming from a governor who forfeited $900 million in federal funds for a project consistently supported by leading transportation experts. It’s insulting.

The reality is that the Baltimore region is currently the fifth-most congested in the country and is only expected to worsen over the next two decades. That was exactly why the Baltimore Region Rail System Plan was developed: to plan for long-term growth. And exactly why Governor Hogan’s decision to balk at it could set Baltimore back a generation.

The belated rearrangement of Baltimore’s existing bus system is shockingly inadequate as the culmination of the governor’s plan. Even if potential improvements benefit existing riders, a comprehensive mass transit strategy must also persuade new “choice riders” to give up their use of cars in order to effectively relieve gridlock.

Now we are seeing the true boondoggle, as the rollout of BaltimoreLink this week has left many confused, lost, or waiting. This was not totally unexpected. The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance had already articulated how BaltimoreLink won’t deliver its promised results. This apprehension was only amplified by the last-minute dismissal of Hogan’s MTA administrator, after reports that he purchased $70,000 in custom furniture to remodel his personal office. When combined with the unclear future of the D.C metro area’s Purple Line — now seemingly in line to suffer a similar fate to its Baltimore-based counterpart — Governor Hogan has developed a disturbing track record of withholding alternative transportation options.

World-class transit

If we want Baltimore to be the world-class city we know it can be, we must provide world-class transit and that means getting the region’s integrated rail plan back on track. Each state dollar invested in the Baltimore region will reach more than 25 percent of Maryland’s population. This return on investment is exactly why it is in Maryland’s best interest to provide sustained support for the region’s infrastructure. We should provide faster, more reliable service to current high population areas, including where millennials want to be. And by recommitting to a plan that integrates existing infrastructure, we can serve major employment centers and ease congested corridors — all while tapping the potential of the region to drive Maryland’s growth for generations.

It will not be easy to reverse the governor’s own short-term boondoggling. But the success of Baltimore — and our entire state — requires a return to long-term, thoughtful, and innovative rail transit solutions. In order to get there we need renewed, steadfast commitment from our statewide leadership. We knew this in 1965. And we know it in 2017. Meanwhile, folks are still waiting for that BaltimoreLink bus to show.

The real missing link in Governor Hogan’s transit plan for Baltimore? A leader willing to commit to a long-term solution.

Kevin Kamenetz, is the Baltimore County Executive, a past president of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, and the current president of the Maryland Association of Counties.  He can be reached at Kevin@Baltimorecountymd.gov and on Twitter @kevinkamenetz.