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Panel: Transportation woes hamper Baltimore’s economic development

Baltimore is still licking its wounds from losing the Red Line light rail project, and transportation woes remain a hurdle to economic development in Maryland’s largest city.

Nonprofit executives, developers and academics repeatedly discussed the lack of investment in Baltimore’s transportation infrastructure, particularly mass transit, during a Baltimore Efficiency & Economy Foundation panel discussion on Wednesday that focused on preparing the city to capture development opportunities, such as Amazon’s HQ2, that bypassed Charm City.

The loss of the Red Line was a particular sore point for panelists. Parks & People Foundation President and CEO Lisa Schroeder said the state’s choice to walk away from the project “makes me want to howl at the moon. I’m still in shock.”

“We have to honor the fact that we lost the Red Line. (But) it didn’t die. It was killed,” said Fagan Harris, president and CEO of Baltimore Corps, which aims to connect talent in the city with public service and social entrepreneurship.

Gov. Larry Hogan nixed the proposed $2.9 billion light rail line that would’ve connected western Baltimore County with east Baltimore. Supporters of the project, largely elected Democrats, had hailed it as a potential “jobs corridor.” Hogan, a Republican, argued the project was far too expensive for what it would provide.

Instead, his administration launched a $135 million overhaul of the metro area’s bus system, which  underwhelmed transit advocates. Hogan’s actions to reduce tolls, provide free E-ZPAss transponders and his proposal to expand Interstate 695 and Interstate 295 angered activists. They accuse the governor of providing perks to his rural and suburban base while neglecting a glaring deficiency in the state’s urban economic engine.

Seema D. Iyer, associate director of the Jacob France Institute in the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business, pointed out that development in the city is happening where transportation infrastructure is the strongest, particularly along Interstate 95 and Interstate 83. She said those growth patterns support the idea that stronger transportation infrastructure spurs growth.

“We need to have that kind of infrastructure everywhere (in the city),” Iyer said.

Thibault Manekin, of Seawall Development, argued developers support stronger mass transit investment for a very simple reason. It makes building simpler.

“It’s going to make development easier because it really challenges developers to build parking garages,” Manekin said.

Fittingly, as the panel discussed transportation woes, Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith was tweeting what many commuters were feeling on the ride home.

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Beyond correcting transportation, panelists argued the city needs to create a unified economic development plan. That way all stakeholders, including businesses, nonprofit institutions and city government, are working toward the same end. The panel’s moderator, Goldseker Foundation CEO Matt Gallagher, attributed Baltimore not having such a plan to a lack of direction.

“I think we have a significant void in leadership in this city,” Gallagher said.

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