Some residents in Anne Arundel County are pushing to close light rail stations that run in their communities to Baltimore. (No, this isn't an old post from 2011. Or from 1994.) Closure proponents claim they're concerned about crime from light rail riders, but there's no evidence of increased crime in the area, from the train or otherwise.
Using the pretext of a short-term closure due to recent flooding, some residents want to shutter certain stations permanently and restrict others to only operating during rush hour. The push has gained ground. Recently Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh asked the Maryland transportation secretary to close the stations because of the “problems” the light rail is supposedly bringing to the area, though he didn't produce evidence that this was the case.
County police have stepped up patrols at station areas and even ride the trains, but the number of arrests or crimes stopped is absurdly low. To be precise: officers cited 14 fare violations and three arrests from boarding more than 1,000 trains since April.
County police Chief Tim Altomare recently told CBS Baltimore, “There’s a fear that crime comes down on the Light Rail. I don’t think if you look statistically, that there’s any great number of crimes that are generating off Light Rail stops, but there is a clear and convincing feeling of fear about it.”
Still, the absence of evidence hasn't dissuaded people from planning two rallies in support of closing the county's train stations under the pretext of protecting local children from…something.
Politicians are plumbing the issue for votes
Now state senate candidates have joined the fray, both trying to position themselves as standing up for residents against transit in their neighborhoods.
Democratic incumbent Pam Beidle said she's been working for 10 years to close the station because “There’s a drug addiction problem, there’s a homeless problem, and then there’s crime from the light rail. It’s not just one issue.” Her opponent Republican John Grasso said, “Everybody is using that train to create crime.”
Like clockwork, every time an incident happens near or at a light rail station (including things that aren't crimes, like a proposal to build a homeless shelter nearby) there's a loud clamoring to just shut down the whole thing.
The idea that transit encourages crime is a popular concept, but Santa Claus is also popular. It doesn't mean either is true. Nearly every transit project is opposed on the grounds that new transit will bring crime. Usually those claims dissapate once the line opens and nothing happens, but here residents have continued to tilt at this particular windmill. Even County Executive spokesperson Owen McEvoy admitted, “there has not been a crime wave but we have been hearing from the community.”
To recap: we have people lobbying their elected officials to fix a problem all evidence shows does not actually exist. Those elected officials are listening to them, even though they too know the problem does not exist.
Meanwhile, society continues to make movies, write songs, and play video games about all the ways we use cars to commit crimes. Yet for some reason, no one suggests tearing down highways for the crimes they might encourage.
Closing the stations would be expensive and harmful
Practically, closing the stations would be a challenge. Even if the stations are closed, the trains would still need to travel through the area to reach the system's rail yards and BWI airport for people flying into the city.
The county would have a lot of abandoned infrastructure it would still need to patrol and monitor, just like any other area with abandoned buildings.
Then you have the issue of depriving the system's existing riders of their mode of transportation. This would also eliminate opportunities for residents to live close to transit, which is a sure way to increase congestion and traffic throughout the county.
Maryland's Capital Gazette points out other impracticalities as well, like having to pay back federal funds designated for building and improving the system. That money would be better spent addressing other issues in the communities where the light rail runs, like investing in jobs and schools.
Threatening transit is a common tactic
Unfortunately, wielding transit (or lack therof) as a weapon against poor and black people in the Baltimore region is nothing new. As I said, this is at least the third try by residents to keep transit out of the area, and there are plenty of similar examples.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan axed a plan to build a new light rail line through Baltimore that would have connected some of the city's poorest neighborhoods (and their black residents) to jobs centers both downtown and in the suburbs. The administration was sued for civil rights violations, but the investigation was dropped under the Trump administration.
Carroll County, Maryland passed a resolution in 2014 against bringing transit that would connect the county to outside jurisdictions. County leaders supporting the resolution said transit can “act as conduits for crime.”
None of this is new. In the 1970s the Green Line was routed around the then-white University of Maryland campus because residents and university leaders feared racial intergration with DC, and successfully pushed for a less-useful station further away.
Fear of transit is often a thin veil for bigotry
It's not hard to see that what's driving this fear of transit. It has little to do with crime and more to do with perceptions of Baltimore and its (mostly black) residents. Those perceptions are the same ones that drove white flight from Baltimore into surrounding suburbs, and still hold today through people's decisions to try to keep their communities just as segregated today as in decades past.
Just because the language is coded and obfuscated behind notions of crime and public safety does not mean the intents — or the effects — are any different than they were when deeds explicitly specificied that neighborhoods should stay segregated.
Make no mistake, these efforts cause harm. They keep communities segregated and cut residents off from the opportunities that public transportation provides, thereby reinforcing the lack of access that can keep residents in poverty. Quite simply, bigotry reduces affected people's chances at living a happy, healthy, and dignified life.
Instead of dealing with problems openly, these residents choose to hide their prejudices behind things like “crime” or “children” or other things that seem like an easier sell politically. It shows how disinformation can thrive when bias is at play, even when the facts are easy to find.
There's no good reason to close the light stations in Anne Arundel County. Maryland officials should ignore the classist, racist, and otherwise harmful and ignorant notions about transit and crime that some residents just can't seem to let go of.