Note from the editor: Keeping in line with our mission, What Weekly advocates for transit and transportation infrastructure projects that will provide economic development opportunities for the City of Baltimore and increase the quality of life for its residents. 

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Great change rarely comes as the result of individuals acting alone. The truth is, innovation, the kind that has a lasting impact, typically happens when people connect, collaborate, and share the risk. This is why we seek out each other and congregate in cities and universities, churches and temples, corner bars and coffee shops. Because it’s in the places where people come face-to-face, and find common ground, that civilization takes shape. In Maryland, how we make connections is about to undergo a significant transformation, and I’d say it’s about damn time.

Recently, the Maryland General Assembly passed the historic Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act, which will generate an average of $800 million dollars for transportation and transit projects annually. We’re talking about $4.4 billion over the next 6 years or so. This revenue is being generated by raising the gas tax by about 4 cents a gallon annually, until 2016. For anyone whose visited any major city in the world, this investment seems like a no-brainer. An afternoon in San Francisco or New York will make our lack of transit painfully obvious.

To many it seems like common sense that transportation and economic opportunity are a package deal, like Rush Limbaugh and Vicodin, but there are some that would have us believe otherwise. Opponents to the bill seem to believe that shipping non-renewable resources from half-way across the world so that you can sit in your car for an hour or more on your way to work, in effect bankrolling infrastructure projects in countries that you’ll probably never visit, is a better idea than investing in better transit for your own communities. Somehow I’m not convinced.

What’s remarkable is that before this bill was passed, Maryland had no reliable means for maintaining and improving transportation infrastructure throughout the state, which seems downright backwards when you consider the fact that the City of Baltimore exists because of its port. We’re the home of the B&O Railroad, the birthplace of the largest rail system in the Western hemisphere for cryin’ out loud. The fact that the last major transit project happened in this state over twenty years ago illustrates that our priorities have been somewhat questionable as of late.

From an outsider’s perspective, it appears as though some of our legislator’s lack the capacity to understand that change is constant and failing to act is the same as falling behind. And as I sit here writing this in Mount Vernon, one of the most beautiful neighborhoods on the East Coast, it’s apparent to me that a major obstacle has kept Baltimore from taking its rightful place as a world class city – the poor decisions made by those who lack vision and the courage to lead.

But this story isn’t about those folks. This story is about people who make big ideas happen. Keep in mind, while we are whole heartedly biased at What Weekly, we don’t subscribe to any particular party. We do, however, feel obliged to tip our hat to Governor O’Malley and his counterparts in the state legislature for their stance on transportation infrastructure investment, as well as on gay marriage, medical marijuana, the repeal of the death penalty, and wind power subsidies. But to be clear, the story I want to tell isn’t really about those folks either.

The story that needs to be told is one about the people behind the scenes. These are some of the folks who spent years working to make transportation infrastructure investment in Maryland a reality. They come from different backgrounds, have different interests, but they worked together, to ensure that this bill got passed. They inspired us and gave us renewed hope that Baltimore will indeed march forward into the 21st Century, kicking ass and taking names. Pay close attention, odds are one of these folks is your neighbor.

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Martin Knott

Meet Martin Knott, the President of Knott Mechanical and Chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Corporation. If anyone has reason to be concerned about raising the gas tax, it’s Knott. His company runs 46 trucks and uses about 65,000 gallons of gasoline a year.

While considering how a gas tax hike will impact his business, I’m sure he pulled out his calculator more than once or twice and crunched the numbers. But like any smart business owner, Martin takes the long view.

Martin cites the widening of the Panama Canal as a historic opportunity for Baltimore and Maryland, and he believes that Baltimore is positioned better than any other East Coast city to capitalize on accepting the wider ships that need the 50 foot berths unique to the Port of Baltimore. This is one of the main issues that inspired him to put together a coalition of business leaders to raise money and take this issue to the voters.

“Now that we’ve passed this legislation, if you’re New York or you’re Norfolk, you’re going to be running after us. Because in Maryland, we’re going to be moving things forward. We’re going to be investing in our port, we’re going to be investing in our rail system and we’re going to take this to another level. We’re going to create jobs and we’re going to be on top of the opportunities created by the Panama Canal expansion.”

In his spare time, if you can imagine him having any, Knott is a strong advocate for STEM education and putting art and music back into schools. He’s also a bona fide Dead Head and runs a newsletter called Today In Grateful Dead History that puts out music and stories Monday through Friday.

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Rod Easter

Rod Easter hails from West Baltimore and has been a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for 33 years. As President of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, Rod had the opportunity to impress upon legislators the importance of the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act to the community. Rod reached out to lawmakers and asked them to look at the big picture and make the tough decisions that were needed to create real change.

Rod is known for putting old school union politics aside and is responsible for earning huge job opportunities like CSX Intermodal and the new Exelon Headquarters for his members by working collaboratively with corporations and holding elected officials accountable to a real jobs agenda. The 57,000 jobs created by the bill, and the Red Line, is a huge opportunity for Baltimore’s labor community and is due in part, to the work of Rod Easter.

“This act will create real jobs. Jobs for electricians, plumbers, steam fitters, iron workers. To hear the clanging of the steel, and the whistles blowin’ on the construction sites, the concrete being poured, that warms me, that puts people to work, that builds families, that builds communities, and it’s going to allow us to leave a legacy for the future.”

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Robbyn Lewis

Meet Robbyn Lewis, Founder and President of the Red Line Now PAC. Robbyn is the kind of community activist that buys a house in East Baltimore because she believes that those neighborhoods are worth rebuilding. She believes by embedding herself there she can have the greatest impact.

A self-proclaimed Balto-phile, Robbyn realized early on that one of the main obstacles to helping Baltimore reach its full potential is the lack of mass transit in the city. Not only does our transit deficiency hinder the mobility of our current residents, it also discourages would-be transplants from settling here and students who attend our colleges from staying here once they graduate.

In order to take an active role in solving the transit problem, Robbyn founded a political action committee, and brought together diverse constituencies across the city, to push for funding of the Red Line, which plans to connect East and West Baltimore by light rail. Incidentally, Robbyn hasn’t lived in Baltimore for some time, though her love for the city compels her to continue to champion the Red Line project while traveling through Asia, Africa, or from where she now lives in North Carolina, working as a public health professional.

“There are some really great things that will happen if the Red Line gets built and if we get more transportation infrastructure. The first thing that will happen is a lot of young professionals, and talented people, and employers will chose to come here, and those that come here will choose to stay.”

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Michele Whelley

Michele Whelley is a national thought leader on transportation and economic development and the CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a non-profit group of business an civic leaders focused on the infrastructure in region and how transportation effects economic development. For several years the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance has supported every effort to increase revenue for the Transportation Trust Fund. Michele was instrumental in coordinating different coalitions in order to make sure that this bill got passed.

Transportation and access to workforce are the two primary reasons employers cite as their reasons to grow in a location or move to a location. These are two of the issues that have been foremost in our region. While the major capital transit projects are critical, the current situation won’t allow us to wait for several years for these projects to be completed. Whelley proposes the revenue generated should be used to expand the current operating systems as soon as possible. If she has her way we can expect to see expanded MARC Train service in the very near future – including weekend service that will bolster Baltimore’s connectivity to D.C. for tourism and commerce.

When asked what she was hopeful for after all is said and done Whelley had this to say, “There are a couple of positive things that came out of this effort beyond the transportation revenue bill getting passed, and one was the coalition itself, the Maryland Transit Coalition that was pulled together by the Center For Smart Growth, we dubbed it Get Maryland Moving. Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Howard County, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, diverse groups all working together, to get this done. I am really hopeful that this is the beginning of much more collaboration on a regional basis because economic development is regional.”

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At the beginning of 2013, What Weekly resolved to champion one big idea for the entire year. While searching for that idea we encountered the remarkable momentum being generated around transportation and feel that it is an incredibly important issue that we’re proud to stand behind. If you’d like to help raise awareness, drop us line. We’re always open to collaborating with folks who’d like to see Baltimore change for the better.

  • Timothy Nohe

    This is a hopeful develop,ent, but being a lifelong Marylander, I reserve judgement until I actually see something being done. How much money have we spent on saving the Bay and all I see is lose ce plates and bumper stickers. From this I want to see mass transit and bike lanes.

    And your Rush Limbaugh comment was inaccurate as it was gratuitous. Firstly, prescription drug addiction because of medical mistakes is a serious problem in this country. Just because it happened to Rush Limbaugh, an in divi dual many find vile because of his opinions doesn’t lessen the severity of the problem. It was gratuitous to bring it up and did nothing to make your point. All the more so because, secondly, it was an extremely serious drug, OxyContin, to which he became addicted, not vicodin, as a result of a medical mistake.

    Your comment distracted from an important issue.