Sheila Davis, a 34-year resident of Hunting Ridge—the serene, isolated community bound by Edmonson Village and Leakin Park—came to an MTA-hosted open house for the proposed Red Line last weekend with a gamut of questions. She’s worried that the new transit system, an above and underground train route that promises to connect East and West Baltimore by rail, will raise her car insurance premium or negatively alter the property value of her home.

Will it direct more foot traffic through her quiet neighborhood as pedestrians and drivers attempt to avoid the rail, she mused? And what about the curious schoolchildren who may be tempted to hide or haphazardly run across “the portal” at Edmonson Avenue and Brookwood Road where the train ascends from an underground tunnel?

“Light rails bring the good and bad,” she said.

MTA officials and community volunteers stood next to poster boards and maps in the cafeteria of Edmonson-Westside High School May 7 to inform West Baltimore residents like Davis about the 14-mile rail route and relay how neighborhoods could be affected. It was the first of a handful of open houses local transit leaders will hold in key communities that would transform under the proposed system.

MTA Spokesman Terry Owens said the agency “didn’t just want to inform the public.” “We wanted to have the community actively engaged,” he said.

Like Davis, several residents who attended the gathering sought answers, but most welcomed the new transit system, as long as it proves beneficial to their communities.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Jacobs Jr., pastor at Christ Deliverance Church, said he attended the information session because he didn’t know enough about the Red Line which will loop in front of his Cooks Lane apartment before heading down Edmonson Avenue.

“I am 100 percent for it because we have a lot of seniors coming from downtown all the way up to Cooks Lane and Stanford Road to Forest Park and they are not going to be able to drive shortly,” he said. “They will need some public transportation.”

James Johnson, an Edmonson Village resident and volunteer for MTA, said he wants construction for the innovative rail line to include a revitalization plan for the neighborhoods affected by the train.

“We want beauty, we just don’t want to put a Red Line running through here,” he said, gesturing toward a map of the train route.

He added that MTA officials should look to impacted communities when hiring maintenance workers and conductors for the Red Line.

“I don’t want it to be like the subway downtown,” he said. “When I went down there the other day I saw two Blacks working there. How is that when the subway is in the city?

“We want to make sure that this train they are going to have supplies jobs for us, and that young people get benefits from this opportunity.”

The $1.8 billion train would connect Woodlawn, Edmonson Village, West Baltimore, downtown, Inner Harbor East, Fells Point, Canton and the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in East Baltimore.

It has faced critics, who call the train divisive and a traffic congestion nightmare that would be heightened during the five-year construction phase. MTA has also battled misinformation, according to Danielle Diggs, a mayoral-appointed city liaison for the Red Line.

Rev. Jacobs said his neighbor was distraught because Red Line construction plans demolish her apartment complex on the corner of Edmonson Avenue and Cooks Lane, forcing her to relocate.

But Diggs says the Red Line project won’t displace any residents, and will only chop up some city-owned lots and yards to create sidewalks or reconstruct steps.

“That’s why it’s important to have these open houses and give people accurate information,” she said.

Besides the fact that displacement is illegal, MTA consultant Klaus Philipsen adds that it goes against the fundamental principles of the project, which include increasing housing diversity, reducing vacancies and preserving the character of the housing stock while maintaining affordability.

“Washington is not going to give 50 percent funding for this project if we did not have community support and if we can’t prove that Baltimore will be better after this,” Philipsen said. “Our goal is to leverage the city’s investment in transit to create better communities,” in corridors such as West Baltimore, which are plagued by abandoned and deteriorating structures and an overall disinvestment in the area.

At the open house, video simulations illustrated the rail as a narrow, compact vessel gliding through underground tunnels and above ground medians surrounded by green space and shrubbery.

Construction is expected to begin in 2016 and end by 2020. MTA officials are awaiting federal funding to match the state’s 50 percent share of the billion-dollar project and approval from the Federal Transit Administration to commence preliminary engineering plans in preparation for construction.

A second red line open house was held May 11, and two others will take place May 14 at Hampstead Hill Academy on Linwood Avenue and May 17 at the University of Maryland Baltimore on Lombard Street.

Meanwhile, Davis said she’ll continue to offer up suggestions that smooth out inconvenient components of the rail line.

“I know the city needs to move people around, and, this might be selfish, but I want it to have the least impact on me and my home,” she said.

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO