Del. Sheila Ruth: Maryland Residents Need Transportation Equity

Equity
msa.maryland.gov

On June 25, 2015, Gov. Larry Hogan did irreparable harm to Baltimore when he canceled the Red Line, Baltimore’s planned east-west rail line.

Not only would the Red Line have brought hope to communities in the Black Butterfly by making more jobs accessible within a reasonable commute, but the transit-oriented development it would have attracted would have been an economic engine beneficial to the entire city and state.

Over 10 years of planning went into the Red Line. By canceling it, Gov. Hogan threw away $900 million in federal funding and shifted $736 million in state funding to road projects in predominantly white neighborhoods.

It was clear to many that the cancellation had a disparate impact on this majority-Black city.

Indeed, two complaints were filed with the federal Department of Transportation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On Jan. 19, 2017, the federal Department of Transportation announced a comprehensive compliance review. Unfortunately, Donald Trump was sworn in as president the next day, and the Trump administration DOT arbitrarily closed the investigation with no finding and no results.

There is still much anger in Baltimore over the cancellation. But the truth is, this was only one in a long line of discriminatory transportation decisions in Maryland.

Over 30 years earlier, Black neighborhoods in West Baltimore were demolished to build a planned extension to I-70. The highway was canceled in 1981, leaving a deep scar permanently dividing Black communities, a scar which is sometimes called the “Highway to Nowhere.” More recently, on Sept.1, 2020, the Maryland Transit Administration announced major pandemic-related transit cuts.

Those cuts were canceled on Sept. 30 due to a massive public outcry. No transit equity analysis was done, so we’ll never have the data to show whether there would have been disparate impact, but subjectively it appeared that MTA’s majority-Black Core Bus service would have borne the brunt of the cuts.

Del. Sheila Ruth

The Federal Transit Administration requires state and local transit agencies that receive federal funds, including Maryland Department of Transportation’s MTA, to conduct a service equity analysis for any major service changes.

However, there are issues with this process:

  • The federal policy allows the local transit agency to define policies and thresholds for what constitutes major service change and disparate impact. These thresholds vary widely around the country, and there’s no guarantee that Maryland’s thresholds are set at a level to adequately capture any disparities.
  • The public participation in setting these policies is inadequate. MDOT’s MTA met with only six community organizations in setting the 2020-2023 major service change policy, and seven community organizations in a webinar format in setting the disparate impact policy. A public survey only received 14 responses.
  • Service equity analysis isn’t done for every change, because of the thresholds noted above, but when it is done, it’s often too late in the process and with inadequate transparency.
  • Current equity analyses study each mode of transit separately, which does not accurately capture the racial and economic impacts of department-wide policy. For example, the core bus ridership (local bus system) is majority Black while the commuter rail ridership is majority white. If more cuts are made to core bus service than to commuter rail routes, a disparity is created that will not show in separate analyses.
  • The FTA Title VI complaint process is subject to partisan politics, as we saw in the very different responses between the Obama administration and the Trump administration to the same Title VI complaints.

Equity should not be an afterthought or a box to check. We will never achieve true equity until it becomes a central focus throughout the planning process.

That’s why I’ve introduced House Bill 1204, the Transportation Equity Analyses and Assurances Act of 2021. HB 1204 makes equity a topline goal in the Maryland Transportation Plan and requires MDOT to collect and analyze data on racial disparities and impact on persons with disabilities. It also creates a commission on transportation equity as an independent transit monitor and evaluator and creates a state-level plan for ensuring that transit changes don’t create disparate impact. If this bill had been enacted before June 2015, the Red Line would not have been canceled.

Real people’s lives are impacted by access to affordable, convenient and accessible transportation. All Marylanders, regardless of race, income, ZIP code or disability should have an equal right to the benefits of a well-planned transportation system.

HB 1204 will help to ensure that Maryland’s transportation planning is equitable and our transportation systems serve all Maryland residents fairly.

— DEL. SHEILA RUTH

The writer, a Democrat, represents Baltimore County’s District 44B in the Maryland House of Delegates. She is a member of the Environment and Transportation Committee.