By Barry Rascovar
Before we get too far into the New Year, let’s dispense with the Maryland political maneuver deemed as the low point of 2015: Civil rights advocacy groups waited till the very end of the year to file the worst and most counter-productive legal complaint that’s been filed in a long, long time.
The groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, are essentially suing Gov. Larry Hogan administratively for daring to kill the $2.9 billion Red Line rapid rail route through Baltimore. Their reasoning: Hogan made a racially discriminatory decision that harms African Americans in Baltimore City.
Not only is the complaint historically inaccurate, it is pointless and damaging to their cause. For this publicity-seeking waste of time and energy, the groups’ complaint richly deserves 2015’s “Dumb and Dumber Award.”
Leap of logic
Republican Hogan has been heavily criticized for cancelling the Red Line project, but racial bigotry isn’t one of the charges that sticks.
Not only is it a stretch to make that wild accusation, there’s no evidence to back up the charge.
Did Hogan sit in his office plotting the death knell of the Red Line so he could keep African Americans “in their place”? Did he divert most of the Red Line money to rural and suburban highway projects as a discriminatory move against blacks?
The accusation is preposterous on its face.
Protesters even claim the Red Line was a vital piece of the state’s plan to remedy racial disparities, and that rejecting the Red Line was part of an historic pattern of racially imbedded transportation decisions by state governors.
Red Line history
Never once in all the years I have reported and commented on the Red Line project have I heard such a distorted argument.
Never once did the Democratic O’Malley administration or the Republican Ehrlich administration make the argument that they wanted to proceed with the Red Line because of its civil rights implications.
Never once did the Hogan administration even hint at a racial motive for stopping the Red Line in its tracks.
The civil rights groups are far, far off-base.
Yes, cancelling the Red Line, and the $900 million in federal funds, ranks as the most boneheaded decision of the century (so far) in Maryland.
Yes, it will harm African Americans in Baltimore – but also whites, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in both Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
But Hogan’s move was largely a political decision. Racial discrimination didn’t enter into the discussion.
Not worth the cost
He did it because he’s a rigidly conservative Republican who hates big government spending projects that primarily benefit Democratic strongholds. He didn’t feel this controversial construction undertaking was worth the huge outlay of state funds.
He wrongly called the Red Line a “boondoggle” because in his mind any oversized project that won’t help his voter base in rural and suburban Maryland isn’t a priority.
He called the Red Line “unaffordable” even though it clearly could have been downsized and revamped to make it more cost-efficient and make it fit into the state’s long-term transportation budget.
Nixing the Red Line was decided by Hogan long before he took office.
He promised during the 2014 campaign to kill the Red Line. Race had nothing to do with it; conservative ideology had everything to do with his decision.
The civil rights groups also make the argument Maryland has a long history of racially discriminatory transportation and housing decisions.
Excuse me, but how did housing get into this argument over building the Red Line?
Not in my neighborhood
There’s no doubt housing discrimination was at play in the Baltimore region over the past 100 years. My former colleague at The Baltimore Sun, Antero Pietila, brilliantly presents the case against the federal, state and city governments for their racially biased housing policies in his book, “Not in My Neighborhood.”
But the issue here is transportation, not housing.
Where did the civil rights groups get the idea that building Baltimore’s Central Light-Rail Line and the region’s Metro Line were purposely designed to discriminate against blacks?
That’s buncombe. It rewrites history to fit the groups’ distorted, conspiratorial world view.
Marvin Mandel built the Red Line not to serve white Marylanders but because there was a right-of-way available from the old Western Maryland Railroad that ran through Northwest Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
Today, Baltimore’s first mass-transit rail line well serves areas that are both black and white, as well as Hispanic. Even the line’s county stations serve a very large and growing African American community.
William Donald Schaefer built the Central Light-Rail Line because there was an abandoned right-of-way available — the former Northern Central Railroad route. It was a cost-and-efficiency engineering decision. The goal, then as now, was to make public transportation to jobs, stores and entertainment easier for EVERYONE – especially those living in Baltimore City.
Neither Mandel nor Schaefer posed as George Wallace seeking to deny blacks better public transportation. Quite the opposite. Race was never a factor in their decisions to build those routes, plain and simple. It did not enter into discussions.
There’s no question Baltimore lacks quality public transportation. There’s no question the city and the state should have done a better job anticipating the need for a comprehensive, coherent and connected mass-transit system that gets low-income adults to job sites.
It’s been a huge failure by state and local officials.
You can blame it on politics, both in Annapolis and in Washington. But you cannot blame Baltimore’s sorry transportation situation on racial discrimination.
Civil rights groups are wasting time and money on this canard. There are important civil rights issues confronting Baltimore at this time, but not the Red Line’s demise.
The civil rights groups’ complaint to Washington bureaucrats contains another huge leap of illogic: It’s too late to undo what’s been done.
Hogan killed the Red Line. It’s a fait accompli. The federal government is redistributing that $900 million to other cities that weren’t stupid enough to turn their backs on such a huge federal gift.
You can’t revise history to satisfy your wishes. The Red Line money from Washington is gone. A civil rights complaint, even if upheld, won’t make that money reappear.
Besides, who’s to say the Red Line would have solved Baltimore’s discrimination woes? Since when did these civil rights groups become experts in the most advantageous public transportation modes for Baltimore residents of color?
How do they view Hogan’s decision to spend $135 million on improving Baltimore’s sub-par bus system? That’s a whopping amount of money for such an undertaking that will primarily benefit the city’s lower-income workers and residents.
Is that part of the discrimination conspiracy, too?
What a distraction.
These civil rights groups should be ashamed. Demonizing Larry Hogan for unfounded civil rights affronts is a terrible mistake that politicizes the legitimate work of those groups. It polarizes the situation and needlessly antagonizes the one person who holds the purse strings for future transportation projects.
The complaint hurts, rather that helps, Baltimore City in its appeals to Annapolis at a time when the city needs all the help it can get.