Canton Organizing To Oppose Transit Plan

But Light Rail Line Down Boston Street Has Official Backing

April 26, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Once a gritty neighborhood on Southeast Baltimore's industrial waterfront, Canton has transformed itself into a model of urban chic where million-dollar townhouses overlook the harbor and destination night spots surround O'Donnell Square.

But many residents of the resurgent community worry that the city's preferred route for an east-west transit line would cut off Canton from the water, drag down property values and compound the area's already serious traffic and parking problems. They're organizing to oppose the plan known as Alternative 4-C - which has powerful support and could well be chosen when the Maryland Transit Administration decides this summer.

That route calls for construction of a light rail line between Woodlawn in the west and Bayview in the east. The line would run in a tunnel under downtown and Fells Point. But it would rise from the depths on Aliceanna Street and run on the surface along Boston Street - the broad avenue that separates the luxury waterfront development to the south from the trendy night spots and the Safeway and Starbucks on the north.

The Canton Community Association took a formal position in December opposing Alternative 4-C, the proposal that has won the backing of the Dixon administration, Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith and the Greater Baltimore Committee, among others.

Darryl J. Jurkiewicz, president of the community group and a lifelong Canton resident, said running above-ground trains on Boston Street doesn't make sense. "We all agree we need more and better mass transit, but if you're not going to do it right, it shouldn't be done."

Ben Rosenberg, a lawyer who lives along the Canton waterfront, is convinced that Alternative 4-C would "debase" if not "destroy" his neighborhood.

"I have yet to find somebody [in Canton] who says they're in favor of this thing," he said. "The feeling in Canton is whatever you do, do it underground. ... If that breaks the bank, wait till the bank fills up."

The problem is that, for now at least, an alternative that includes a tunnel under Boston Street probably would break the bank. MTA officials say all that tunneling would put the Red Line project far outside the cost-benefit formulas rigorously applied by the federal government.

In their opposition to surface light rail, the mostly white, relatively wealthy residents of Canton share a common cause with the predominantly African-American, much less affluent residents of the Edmondson Avenue corridor in West Baltimore.

There, too, many residents are demanding that the Red Line go underground if it is built. On both sides of town, many residents prefer the "no build" alternative to the surface rail called for in Alternative 4-C.

In theory, the MTA could propose a tunnel on one side of town but not the other. But that is not likely. The Canton and Edmondson Village areas are the ends of a teeter-totter in a racial and political balancing act.

Baltimore political leaders and transportation officials understand that favoring Canton over West Baltimore would hit a nerve in the city's African-American community, where people remember well that many black residents were displaced in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for a highway that ultimately wasn't built.

Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning, said the agency is acutely aware of that history. "We take that very seriously because we understand the legacy of those issues."

He also noted that federal law prohibits discrimination among communities on the basis of race or relative wealth. "If we study an expensive [alternative] like tunneling, we have to make sure it's going to be equitable."

That need for equity turns on its head one of the arguments against 4-C made by Canton residents - that they contribute a disproportionate share of the city's tax base. Kay said the MTA is legally precluded from taking that into account.

The 14-mile Red Line, which has been the subject of community meetings for several years, is the city's No. 1 transit priority. Planners have looked at both light rail and "express bus" alternatives, but over the past year a rough consensus has formed on using light rail, partially underground, in the plan known as Alternative 4-C.

For now, however, about a dozen alternatives remain in play, including the option of building nothing. The MTA is expected to recommend a specific plan to Gov. Martin O'Malley this summer.

The governor's choice will be sent to the Federal Transit Administration. If the federal government approves the project, it would cover half the cost. A federal decision is expected in 2010 or 2011, and construction could begin about 2012. According to the MTA, the line could open in 2015 or 2016.

The Dixon administration is unequivocal in its support for the $1.6 billion Alternative 4-C. City officials contend that the Red Line would ease rather than exacerbate Canton's traffic problems by making the area less attractive as a through route, especially for trucks.

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