BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Maryland officials are eyeing a $2.9 billion light rail project long in the works for Baltimore as a way of combating the crushing poverty that fueled rioting in the city after the police-custody death of Freddie Gray.
Backers say the proposed Red Line light rail project could speed city residents to jobs and help end the isolation of poor neighborhoods, some of which still bear the scars of race riots in the 1960s.
But critics call the years-old project flawed and too costly. A final decision rests with Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan, who was elected as a tax-cutter and has questioned the cost of the project and that of a $2.45 billion light rail project proposed for the Washington suburbs, the Purple Line.
Brian O’Malley, president of the non-profit Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, which backs the Red Line, said the rioting in April over Gray’s death from injuries sustained in police custody had shone a light on the many problems that poor Baltimore neighborhoods face.
“People being cut off economically was one of the issues that it highlighted” that the rail line would address, he said.
Supporters say access to jobs is crucial to helping end poverty in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester in west Baltimore where Gray, a 25-year-old black man, lived and died.
Gray was arrested by police on April 12 after running from officers and died a week later of a spinal injury. Six officers have been charged in his death, and prosecutors contend he was hurt while being transported in a police van.
Gray’s death sparked protests and rioting that prompted Hogan to send in National Guard troops. It fueled a U.S. debate over police brutality and focused national attention on Baltimore’s social problems.
Joblessness in the largely black city of 620,000 people was 7.4 percent in April, well above the 4.9 percent posted by Maryland overall, according to U.S. Labor Department figures.
William Cole, the president of the Baltimore Development Corp, said the east-west, 14-mile (23-km) Red Line would run within a half-mile (800 meters) of about two-thirds of jobs in the city, slashing a typical commute of 60 to 90 minutes.
“The No. 1 thing it does is connect people to jobs,” he said.
The Red Line is part of surging U.S. investment in light rail. Twenty-eight cities had light rail systems at the end of 2014, up from 18 in 2000, and the number of average weekday passengers has doubled in the same period, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
A long-running Harvard University study of 5 million families shows that commuting time is the top factor in getting out of poverty.
The longer the commute, the lower the odds of a poor family moving up in the world, even more than other factors such as crime or elementary school test scores, researchers Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren reported last month.
In Sandtown-Winchester, 63 percent of commutes take 30 minutes or longer, and 43 percent of people take public transport to work, according to 2013 figures compiled by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance.
“Residents in Sandtown-Winchester and throughout Baltimore need access to good-paying jobs,” Congressman Elijah Cummings, who represents west Baltimore and supports the projects, said in a statement.
The proposed 19-stop Red Line would include 3.4 miles (5.5 km) of tunnel. It would link suburban Woodlawn, site of federal Medicare and Social Security offices, and Bayview in east Baltimore, where a Johns Hopkins medical complex is one of the city’s biggest employers.
The project would supplement the sole subway line, which runs north-south for about 15 miles (24 km), and connect to rail and bus lines.
The federal government would pay about $900 million of the Red Line costs, with the state, local government and private partners footing the rest.
Although most of Maryland’s congressional delegation and about 60 state lawmakers have voiced support for the Red Line, critics say it is deeply flawed and too expensive.
Republican Representative Andy Harris, the only member of the congressional delegation to withhold support, said he was against the Red and Purple lines since his largely rural and suburban constituents would get little benefit.
He said the projects would take away money for roads and bridges in his district.
Opponent Marty Taylor, president of the Right Rail Coalition, said the line should run through an existing subway tunnel. It then could connect to Johns Hopkins hospitals in east Baltimore, with the changes saving $1 billion.
“They’re saying that because of Freddie Gray we have to build the Red Line,” he said. “I can’t see how it makes the city better for anybody other than the construction companies.”
The Red Line has been in the works since at least 2009, when Maryland approved its route. Preliminary engineering started in 2011, and the Obama administration earmarked construction funds for it in the 2015 and 2016 fiscal year budgets, according to the Federal Transit Administration.
A spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation said there was no deadline for Hogan to decide on the Purple or Red lines.
Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman