By Samuel Jordan
The writer is the president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition.
An open letter to Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Secretary Paul Wiedefeld, Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) Administrator Holly Arnold, Baltimore City Department of Transportation (BCDOT) Director Corren Johnson, and BCDOT Deputy Stu Sirota:
Greetings. After being required to secure punitive, excessive, obstructionist $5 million and $1 million commercial liability insurance policies by MDOT MTA and BCDOT respectively, for a permit to conduct a press event near the West Baltimore MARC station on Feb. 13, the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition consulted with the ACLU of Maryland to determine the legality of such demands. It should also be pointed out that MDOT MTA required an outline of our remarks to be made at the press event prior to issuing an event space permit to host the event at 401 N. Smallwood St. — between parking lots A and B at the MARC station.
It is noteworthy that MDOT MTA said it would approve a permit for the press event at parking lot D, the furthest from the station and parking lot A, where our billboard advocating for the completion of the Red Line project as 100% light rail transit, as it was originally approved and funded, has been posted since early November. We requested event space between parking lots A and B.
Parking lot B is where Governor Moore’s press conference took place last summer, when he reinforced his pledge to complete the Red Line project. During its 13-year planning stage, MDOT MTA promised that the parking lots would be available to nearby residents for community events.
(Our transit coalition, working with allies, has secured the $1 million liability insurance policy. We will accept reimbursement from BCDOT for our unconstitutionally required expense.)
To have these conditions placed on us for a press event is reminiscent of our first anniversary observation of the cancellation of the Red Line on June 25, 2016. Our plan was to stage the event at parking lot B, then walk and engage the communities along nearby Edmondson Avenue with fliers and an invitation to festivities at a nearby park. MDOT MTA demanded a terrorism liability insurance policy. The Baltimore District Court squashed the demand immediately.
ACLU Maryland Director Deborah Jeon provided us with a memo from 2021 with citations to relevant decisions from cases around the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, finding the insurance policy demand unconstitutional when applied to the exercise of the freedom of speech in the public square. In one such case, the plaintiff successfully challenging the insurance demand was the Ku Klux Klan.
Will this unconstitutional demand remain the policy of MDOT MTA and BCDOT?
MDOT MTA’s conditions for approving our news conference were communicated to the coalition by email on Jan. 30. One day earlier, the author and representatives of MDOT MTA clashed on several issues at a public meeting regarding transit investments in Maryland and the Baltimore region.
The most critical exchange occurred when I challenged the possibility that MDOT MTA would recommend building bus rapid transit (BRT) instead of light rail to complete the Red Line. I noted that when the Baltimore County executive expressed his wish for a light rail spur from Bayview to Sparrows Point to accommodate the rapidly developing Tradepoint Atlantic project, “there has been and there will be no one at MDOT MTA suggesting to Johnny O that he should choose a bus.” The author made it known that “the bus is for us” — Black people and people of color in Baltimore. The room fell silent.
When a substantial number of Black communities and riders are affected, I argued that the ever-ready solution is, “Throw a bus at it and don’t spend a penny more.” It was the next day that we received the demand from MDOT MTA for a $5 million liability insurance policy for an exercise of the right to free speech in the public square, along with the condition that we submit an outline of our remarks intended for the press event before the agency could issue a permit for the venue.
The Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition fully expects MDOT MTA and BCDOT to rescind these requirements, including MDOT MTA’s demand that we provide a summary of our remarks, as a condition for issuing a permit for our event Tuesday. If such is not required of the Ku Klux Klan, why is it proper to demand prior review from our coalition? The entire state of Maryland, the DMV, the Eastern seaboard, and the federal government are aware that our message urges completion of the construction of the Red Line project as originally approved and funded, as light rail.
In addition, we seek to supplant the MDOT MTA governance model with a Baltimore Regional Transportation Authority. For the first time in MTA’s history, members and representatives of the communities most directly affected by transit policies would participate in the formulation of such policies. We are encouraged that a broad constituency across the region and state is steadily growing in support of our goals.
Our press event will also feature a description of the proposed Escape Velocity Revenue Generation strategy. It’s an essential step to the generation of taxable private sector investments in public transit infrastructure that will pay us back — 10,000 jobs, debt service, improved transit equity, and $3 billion — through $6.5 billion in equitable transit-oriented development. Such investments will propel escape from the current convergent crises in transportation funding and capital investments in public transit systems, while providing a continuous flow of taxable revenues and economic development for the next several decades.
All are welcome to our press event at 11 a.m. tomorrow, Tuesday, and our rally and march on Feb. 20 at noon, convening at McKeldin Square at the Inner Harbor. All Baltimore registered voters may sign our ballot access petition to compel the City of Baltimore to take the first steps in creating a Baltimore Regional Transportation Authority.
Should state and city agencies drop their requirements, the press event may well be held at parking lot B at the West Baltimore MARC station.