Promising that the question would be “spicy,” the moderator asked five mayoral hopefuls about an idea that has been kicking around Baltimore for years:
“Do you believe in investing hundreds of millions of city dollars in maintaining the Jones Falls Expressway? Or are you ready to build a coalition to tear it down?” asked Lisa Snowden-McCray at a transportation-themed forum for mayoral candidates held at The Real News Network headquarters.
“We need to tear it down and we need to tear down the Highway to Nowhere,” former Mayor Sheila Dixon said, referring to the 1.2 miles of highway built to connect I-70 with downtown Baltimore that displaced thousands in West Baltimore, was never completed and now remains as a little-used concrete canyon.
Senator Mary Washington and Mary Miller both spoke positively about the idea and even Thiru Vignarajah, who was technically non-committal – saying a teardown shouldn’t happen without “lots of community consensus” – managed to sound open to it.
“This is one of those generational decisions that everyone should be part of,” he declared.
“I don’t think this is going to be as spicy as you thought,” said City Council President Brandon Scott, agreeing that the JFX, along with the Highway to Nowhere, should be dismantled.
“Or we could re-imagine how we use it,” he continued. “Who says we can’t make it a busway, who says we can’t combine and have it be bus and bike transit?”
More “spice” might have been provided if the incumbent had been onstage. But Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who had been invited, did not participate in the forum.
A standing-room-only crowd turned out for the February 26 event, which was sponsored by Bikemore, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition.
The participants, a subset of the total pool of candidates created by inviting the top campaign fundraisers, presented transportation initiatives stressing local autonomy or cooperation with state and federal partners.
Scott and Vignarajah emphasized innovation based on empirical data and consensus-building, while Dixon called for greater involvement from state and federal agencies.
Miller, an alumna of former President Barack Obama’s Treasury Department, argued Baltimore should establish a Regional Transportation Authority.
Washington said the city needed more engagement to meet the transit needs of black and Latinx communities.
“Our [racial and economic] biases are used to destroy really good public policy,” Washington said. “We need a racial and economic reconciliation coalition,” which she said would address longstanding damage from redlining and decades of discriminatory federal housing policy.
Expand the Circulator
The city’s free Charm City Circulator bus network, which primarily covers the city’s more affluent north-south and southeast corridors, provided a ripe subject for the candidates, who all said they back greater transportation equity.
Vignarajah called for expanding the Circulator network, with the goal of implementing “free buses across Baltimore.”
Mentioning the free bus service in Denver, Austin and “many, many cities in Europe,” he challenged his opponents to take a similar stance.
Scott cited his past support for expanding the Circulator to Belair Road, North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue.
“We have to do it. . . because we know it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “If you live in Sandtown, and you’re making $12 an hour, and you have to pay for a monthly [transit] pass, that’s just wrong.”
How to pay for it?
Miller said she was unsure of the Circulator’s current mission.
It has “clearly no equity in terms of serving the corridors of the city,” she said. “I think we have to go back to the beginning and say, ‘What have we built here?’”
While she applauded the free bus proposal, she argued Baltimore needs a “financially sound system” in order to implement it.
“I think if we could go to this regional transportation model, we could begin to sort out all the elements of the Circulator, MTA, and good public transportation,” Miller said.
Dixon, who reminded the audience she helped create the Circulator, called for linking city transportation to free university and college shuttles.
“Most of our universities and colleges don’t pay taxes, but they have bus services,” she observed. “Why not connect those free bus services to our circulator?”
MORE INFORMATION: The advocacy group Bikemore asked questions about transportation and got answers from the candidates at the forum and from others who were barred from participating. You can read them on their I Bike, I Vote 2020 page.
Candidates for City Council president will participate in a transportation forum at The Real News Network on Thursday, March 12.