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Buttigieg on Red Line: “We're very excited to fund good transit projects”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks at a Tuesday news conference in Baltimore.
Emily Sullivan/WYPR

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg discussed how President Biden’s $1.2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill may lead to major projects for Baltimore and touted a $22 million federal grant for Baltimore’s East-West Priority Corridor during a visit to the city Tuesday.

Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin hope to use the infrastructure bill to resurrect the Red Line — the shovel-ready light rail project to connect East and West Baltimore that Governor Hogan cancelled in 2015, returning $900 million in federal funding.

The Democrats lobbied for language within the legislation that puts infrastructure projects previously greenlit by the federal government at the front of the line for future funding. But the bill does not mention the Red Line by name, meaning it’ll compete with other eligible projects. And some local transit activists are wary of reapplying for the federal funds until Hogan’s term ends in January 2023; the Republican is term-limited and cannot run for re-election.

In an exclusive interview with WYPR, Buttigieg said the U.S. DOT’s phones are ringing off the hook with pitches — but emphasized that the infrastructure bill is not a “a one-time, one-month bonanza” but meant to fund projects through fiscal year 2026.

“So on one hand, even a big sum of money like this can go very quickly and will be competitive,” the Democrat said. “On the other hand, there is more to work with than there's ever been.”

“I do think it's a good time for people who have maybe been frustrated in the past or not had the resources they need in the past to look at future opportunities,” Buttigieg said. “We're very excited to fund good transit projects.”

Those opportunities include both the provisions the senators included in the bill, as well as discretionary grants and formula grants that have several rounds of renewals, he added.

The NAACP and Black transit activists filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. DOT after the Red Line’s cancellation, noting that Hogan shifted more than $730 million of the project’s state money to roads in predominantly white counties.

“To move all the funds to other parts of the state, I think, did violate civil rights,” said Brian O’Malley, the president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. “It worsened disparities between people of color and white residents in Maryland.”

On President Obama’s last full day in office, the U.S. DOT opened the complaint, indicating the administration’s belief that it had merit. The Trump administration closed it.

When asked whether he would reopen the complaint, Buttigieg said he can’t speak to any specific cases.

“What I can say is we're going to take civil rights very seriously moving forward,” he said. “When I arrived, we found that the department's Office of Civil Rights was not exactly staffed up or empowered.”

He stressed that in the context of the federal government, DOT has as much to do with racial and economic justice as the Department of Justice.

“I think there is a new level of intention about fairness going forward, especially since the summer of 2020, and that's a good thing,” he said.

At a news conference, Buttigieg touted the federal investments in Baltimore’s East-West Priority Corridor as a commitment to connecting residents to jobs, access and opportunity.

The $22 million Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE, grant will fund dedicated bus lanes and infrastructure for pedestrians and bikers along a 20-mile, east-west stretch. The corridor follows the CityLink blue and orange routes, which span from Fox Bridge and eastern Baltimore County through downtown to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services in western Baltimore County.

The $50 million project will also be funded by $18 million from the state transportation department and $10 million from the city DOT.

It will bring 10 miles worth of dedicated bus lanes, transit signal priority implementation along Edmondson Ave., Fayette St. and Eastern Ave., crosswalks, curb extensions, ADA curb ramps, signal upgrades at select intersections and a 1.5-mile on-street bicycle lane. Officials said the new infrastructure will improve bus times.

“This means shorter commutes, less congestion, fewer carbon emissions, as well as more jobs, including for communities that depend on public transit the most, which are disproportionately likely to be communities of color,” Buttigieg said, speaking in Baltimore’s Library Square flanked by MTA buses.

About 86,000 households are within half a mile of the corridor, said Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater. About 27% of those households do not have access to a car, while 20% live in poverty.

“This investment is an investment in these communities and all the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and friends and neighbors that call these communities home,” Slater said.

Mayor Brandon Scott called the project a game changer that will transform the commutes for more than 180,000 jobs along the corridor, including those at the Social Security Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the central business district of downtown Baltimore and Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital.

“I remember getting up at 5:30 a.m. to go from west to east to get to high school on time, at 8:00 in the morning,” he said. “And I remember how much faster it was for me to catch the bus downtown and catch the subway uptown on the way home, because of how bad the East-West transit was.”

The project also will make more than 100 bus stops ADA accessible. It also will fund signs that display bus times, weather shelters, benches and trash cans at those stops.

Bennie Williams, a bus operator who’s worked for the Maryland Transit Administration for 21 year, said the project's efforts to improve bus times will make his passengers’ days smoother.

“It’ll give us a chance to help people to make their doctors’ appointments, get their medicine, and their groceries back home safely,” he said.

O’Malley of the CMTA noted that buses move far more people than cars. He called the dedicated bus lanes a way to meet the climate crisis and reduce disparities by giving people more access to jobs and schools through faster, more reliable service.

That improved service, as well as the increased walkability around bus stops and accessibility for people with disabilities, likely will bolster ridership — “which helps make the case for further investment,” he said.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.