Four Years Later, Death of Red Line Still Angers ‘Car-Free’ Lawmaker

Del. Robbyn T. Lewis (D-Baltimore City) shows where the proposed Red Line would have run through her legislative district. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Four years ago Tuesday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) pulled the plug on the Red Line, a federally approved subway line in the Baltimore region that planners had been working on for more than a decade.

For Del. Robbyn T. Lewis (D-Baltimore City), the outrage is as fresh as if Hogan had just made the decision yesterday.

“It boggles my mind,” she told a reporter during a recent interview in her Annapolis office. “I can’t process it. It was so unnecessary.”

Hogan was just six months into his first term when he spiked the proposed transit line, a 14-mile rail link that would have run from Woodlawn in the west to Bayview in the east.

He announced his decision with gusto, telling reporters, “We are not opposed to public transportation. We are opposed to wasteful boondoggles.”

Indeed, Hogan proved his willingness to invest billions in mass transit by announcing his decision to build the Washington, D.C., region’s Purple Line on the same day he deep-sixed the $2.9 billion Baltimore project.

But that was cold comfort to Lewis, who is believed to be the only member of the General Assembly who doesn’t own a car.

“I use the term car-free,” the 55-year-old lawmaker said of her bike-walk-and-transit lifestyle. 

“I’m not ‘carless.’ That implies a certain helpless deprivation. I choose to be liberated from the burden and expense of car ownership.”

An international public health and policy professional who works as a consultant for the University of Baltimore, Lewis’ dedication to “car-free” living was put to the test when she was appointed to the legislature to fill a vacancy in 2017.

Suddenly, she had to face the challenge of getting to Annapolis every Monday and home to Baltimore’s 46th District every Friday.

How does Lewis do it?

She takes Lyft, which runs her about $50 each way from her Patterson Park home. 

Compared with the cost of owning a car — car payment, gas, insurance, the inevitable parking tickets, maintenance, and so on — Lewis figures she comes out ahead. 

Plus, she hated having a car.

“I hated it. I resented it,” she said. “I had to resort to burning fossil fuels to go to the grocery store.”

So she gave her car to her sister, who lives in Silver Spring, an act that left her feeling “liberated.”

Lewis grew up in suburban Indiana, outside Chicago and “like everybody else,” she got her learners permit at 15. 

Her first car was a hand-me-down AMC Pacer. 

But her father was a physician who decided his daughters would attend a private school in the city, over an hour away.

Though she was grateful for the advantages of a top-tier education, those long drives back and forth had an impact. And it wasn’t just the activities she missed out on.

As a result, Lewis has made a conscious decision to live in urban areas whenever possible.

Of all the places she’s lived — including Chicago and New York — Baltimore has by far the worst transit network, she said.

“It’s just so terrible.”

Which is why Hogan’s decision to kill the Red Line still burns.

As Lewis views it, the act thwarted a once-in-a-generation opportunity to give people who can’t afford cars — or choose not to have them — access to a broader array of employment opportunities. And it deprived neighborhoods that have struggled for decades the chance to experience the sort of vitality that communities near D.C.’s Metro stops have seen. 

“The Red Line project alone would have created ten thousand jobs — good jobs,” she said. “And it would have catalyzed economic activity.”

In addition to giving residents a way to move efficiently from east to west, the line would have intersected with the city’s existing north-south line, “creating a network,” — and it would have linked to MARC and light rail.

“The entire city was robbed” of this opportunity, she said. 

“I can’t imagine making a decision so recklessly, so capriciously, thoughtlessly and without consultation — I would never do that as a delegate.” 

At the time of Hogan’s decision, Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said a single tunnel that would have cost $1 billion made the project unworkable from a fiscal standpoint. 

Lewis noted that Baltimore and Washington, D.C. — two cities of comparable size and history — both began investing in downtown rail about the same time, in the early 1970s when federal dollars started to become available for such projects.

But while the D.C. Metro system grew and grew, Baltimore’s did not. And the resulting disparity is obvious, and significant.

“D.C. is now one of the most livable cities. They have better air quality. It’s a desirable place to live. People want to live there, because they don’t have to depend on cars. They’ve invested in infrastructure that make it enjoyable to live in the city.”

Lewis was so excited by the prospect of rail coming to her neighborhood and others, she volunteered to help design the Patterson Park stop. 

While she believes “entrenched, endemic racism and racial hatred… stunted the unfolding of our transit project,” she said city leaders share part of the blame.

“There was a lack of leadership and a cowardice after [former Mayor and Governor William Donald] Schaefer [that was] very unfortunate and held us back.”

The state sunk nearly $300 million into planning the Red Line, a project that — like the Purple Line in Prince George’s and Montgomery — qualified for approximately $900 million in hard-to-get federal funds.

Could a future governor resurrect the project?

“The core idea will never disappear because the need for transit infrastructure investment will never disappear,” Lewis said. “We’re on the verge of climate catastrophe. … If we don’t get out of our fossil-fuel burning vehicles, we’re never going to be ready for climate disaster.” 

“The project itself is still needed and that east-west connector to create a real network is still needed,” Lewis added. “But the question is whether we can just dust off the old Red Line plans. That I don’t know.” 

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Del. Lewis is sadly misinformed about transit in Baltimore and about the needs of her district, where I live. The Red Line was a 1970s answer to a problem during the UBER/Lyft era. Del. Lewis also fails to disclose that she has a long history of working with the promoters of the Red Line before she was appointed to the House.

    The Red Line’s construction would have destroyed the business districts in Canton and Fells Point – in her district – during its construction. It would have permanently narrowed Boston St. to one lane in each direction, with a train running through the median strip.

    The Red Line would have run very slowly because it had two turns and a tunnel designed mostly to accommodate a couple of ever-needy developers who were panhandling for federal set asides. Turning slows trains. The Red Line wasn’t Transit Oriented Development, it was Developer Oriented Transit.

    The Fell’s Point part of the project would have been built in a flood plain. Digging tunnels through the water table makes everything cost-prohibitive. The construction would have caused havoc for homeowners in historic areas who live on top of shallow 18th and 19th century foundations. The Red Line’s closest station would have been a 21 minute walk from Del. Lewis’ home.

    The Red Line would not link directly with the city’s other two commuter lines. The surface portion of the Red Line would be subject to disruptions by weather events, as has happened a couple of times with the existing light rail. It would be subject to disruptions every time Baltimore’s hundred year old water and sewer system springs a leak. There are no detours in a single rail line. When the existing Light Rail has a stoppage, the MTA creates a “bus bridge” and everyone goes to work late.

    Instead of dumping money into a hole in the ground, Hogan’s transportation team put new bus routes on what would be an optimal map for a mass transit system for Baltimore. They created dedicated bus lanes in congested areas. They are endeavoring to create red light preemption that would speed the entire system. I have been taking the MTA on trips to and from downtown. The dedicated bus lanes have speeded up the trip considerably. The cellphone app for tracking buses is a work-in-progress. It was the first comprehensive re-do of bus routes in Baltimore since before I was born in 1957. (My father worked on it.)

    The Hogan re-work of the bus routing covers the entire region, not just a single route that was custom-tailored for developers in search of federal transportation subsidies. If I want to go from Upper Fell’s Point to the MegaBus stop at White Marsh Mall, I now can take the Brown Line directly. Before, I would not even have known how to get there on the MTA.

    The idea that the Red Line would connect poor people from Sandtown to waiting jobs is a complete fallacy. The Red Line would take them to fast food jobs in Fell’s Point and Canton, maybe jobs at Hopkins Bayview. They could get there almost as fast by taking a bus that doesn’t divert through a tunnel under downtown Baltimore. There are virtually no jobs for poor people in downtown Baltimore, which has seen dozens of office towers convert to apartments.

    Del. Lewis needs to start representing real needs of real people in her district, instead of speaking in generalities and advancing a proposal that would have spent billions of dollars creating problems instead of solving them.

  2. Mark J Adams comments are obviously the product of deep knowledge of the failed Red Line proposal in its physical and community implications. One factor not mentioned though is that the broader Baltimore business community didn’t support the project in sufficient numbers. Absent that critical support the project was doomed long, long before Hogan came to office.

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