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Transit access is flashpoint in Maryland civil rights probe

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A Department of Transportation review examines potential civil rights violation in cancellation of a Baltimore light rail route

Rendering of proposed Red Line light rail system in Baltimore.
Rendering of proposed Red Line light rail system in Baltimore.

In 2015, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan canceled a proposed light-rail project for Baltimore. The 14-mile $2.9 billion extension to the city’s Red Line would have connected low-income areas in the western part of the city with the waterfront, a potential link to jobs and employment opportunities.

On the last day of the Obama administration, the Department of Transportation’s Civil Rights Division launched a federal review of the case, which may serve as a national reminder that transit access is a civil right.

At the time, Hogan argued that the light-rail expansion was too expensive. He cited potential cost overruns, calling the project a “boondoggle.” But the money was later redistributed to highway and bridge projects across the state. According to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, these projects would benefit primarily white suburban residents at the expense of the mostly African-American population that was set to benefit from the light rail project.

According to Ajmel Quereshi, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the DOT investigation broadens the scope of a previous discrimination case brought by NAACP in 2015 that investigated the cancellation of the Red Line. The DOT action will examine the entire state’s transportation planning to see if it violates civil rights.

Doug Mayer, a communications director for Hogan, told the Washington Post that while he wouldn’t comment on the federal review, the Red Line never made financial sense, and that plenty of state resources go to Baltimore.

This action, and the previous case, was based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which states that programs receiving federal funding for transportation can’t institute discriminatory policies. Title VI has been used in the past to help create more equitable transportation systems. In 1994, the LDF successfully prosecuted a case against the city of Los Angeles, alleging the subway system did not serve the needs of minority riders. The case resulted in a comprehensive settlement agreement that increased funding for bus systems in underserved communities and has been enforced for the last 20 years (a new complaint, alleging the city’s metro department discriminates against black riders and disproportionately fines them for fare evasion, was filed earlier this month).

"DOT will conduct a comprehensive compliance review of the [state's] programs and activities in order to ensure Title VI compliance," wrote Yvette Rivera, associate director of the Departmental Office of Civil Rights. "This review may require the development of a compliance action plan and corrective action plan to remedy any areas of noncompliance."

Quereshi told Curbed that a legal inquiry under Title VI is relatively straightforward: they need to prove that a decision had a discriminatory impact, and that one group was impacted disproportionately. The previous NAACP LDF case actually used what’s called the Maryland model, a standard analysis process used by planners across the country, and the city’s own data, to prove it’s point.

He says that it’s not 100 percent clear that a discovery of statewide discrimination in transportation planning would result in the Red Line being built. What may happen is that the money may be sent back to Baltimore on condition that it enter into a settlement that complies with Title VI and adds more equitable transportation options. Otherwise, it may be withheld.

“We hope that any plan from the government will return those funds to Baltimore where they belong,” he says.

Despite being initiated on Obama’s last day, Quereshi believes it will proceed despite the change in administration.

“It’s our expectations that DOT was clear they were going forward with this investigation, and we expect them to hold to their word,” he says.