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Red Line

Baltimore Still Needs The Red Line

This is a critical month for the Red Line. With FTA’s Record of Decision issued in February, and Governor O’Malley’s recent plan to raise $800 million a year in transportation revenue, some of which will be used as the local match for the Red Line’s federal funds, there is light at the end of the tunnel for many of the bureaucratic and financial hurdles the project has had to overcome. But it’s not a done deal yet.  Solid support for the Red Line in Baltimore and Annapolis is imperative at this stage. If you support the project, write our mayor and state legislature to let them know.

If you support more transit in Baltimore, but not necessarily this project or light rail alignment, hold your nose and understand that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Maryland isn’t exactly a progressive state when it comes to transit, and another rail project may not come to the Baltimore region in your lifetime. The design challenges of constructing rail systems in old, post-industrial cities are many. Right of way issues, utilities, historic buildings, and narrow streets require compromises. Because you’d rather have a station two blocks west of where it’s proposed doesn’t mean the entire project should be shelved.

If you don’t support any new fixed rail transit in Baltimore, you’re on the wrong side of history. Cities across the U.S. and Europe are making enormous strides with new light rail systems, metros and streetcars and seeing substantial economic and livability gains as a result. Here’s a blurb about Tempe, Arizona’s new light rail line:

Onnie Shekerjian, Tempe councilwoman and chair of the Council Committee on Technology, Economic and Community Development, says she never anticipated a $4 billion economic boost for Tempe.
Shekerjian admits. “The light rail was a very expensive form of transportation, but the fact that it cleared up a blighted area and brought in immense economic development is something that made me very interested.”

On Denver’s FasTracks light rail system:

FasTracks funding will pay construction workers almost $1.2 billion throughout the design and construction period. The direct and induced jobs generated across the community will create another $1.7 billion in wages and salaries. In total, the jobs created by FasTracks design and construction will pump $2.9 billion into the metro Denver economy. Operations and maintenance of the FasTracks system is estimated to be $1.258 billion for the period from 2017 through 2025. A total of 2,573 jobs each year are due to the direct, indirect and induced impacts of FasTracks expenditures on operations and maintenance after build out. This will add over $150 million annually in wages and salaries to the metro Denver economy, most of which will be spent locally.

[But] the impact of FasTracks to businesses in metro Denver and the state of Colorado is far bigger than the jobs and spending created by the construction, maintenance and operation of the system. As John Huggins, Director of the Denver Office of Economic Development succinctly puts it, “FasTracks is much more than a transportation proposal – it is about building on our existing investments to make us the kind of community that can succeed and thrive in this new century.”

This isn’t even counting the economic benefits of giving more Baltimore residents alternatives to driving.  In Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City, he estimates 80% of the money spent on automobiles leaves the local economy. Not surprising. When you pay for gas, you line the pockets of wealthy Saudi Arabians. When you pay your insurance, Geico’s profits sure don’t stay in Baltimore. Sure, there are local and regional taxes, but these don’t compare to spending money on dinner in Greektown or buying a bike at Joe’s Bike Shop.

And if you weren’t paying attention the last 15 times I’ve said this, a new generation of city residents are driving less, or not at all, and value quality pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, street life, and comprehensive transit systems way more than congestion-free, level-of-service-C-or-better streets. Traffic engineers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to shave 2 minutes off of car commutes. This does absolutely nothing to entice a new generation of residents to move to Baltimore.  You can sell a city through better transit. You can’t sell it through speeding cars through neighborhood streets, even if they are designated as “arterials”.

Critics mention that our existing metro and light rail systems didn’t spur promised development.  Some argue that certain neighborhoods on these lines are worse than they were 20 years ago. They’re right, but not for the reasons you think.  Most of these neighborhoods began their decline before transit construction began, and both the light rail and metro never had a critical mass of riders (except on game day) because their alignments missed a lot of major trip generators while leaving huge access gaps in most parts of the city.

But the tide is changing as the economy improves, and developers now recognize the value in our existing rail transit system, incomplete as it may be. Recent transit-oriented developments like Owing Mills Metro Center, Woodberry mills, EBDI, and the Social Security Administration’s new HQ on Reisterstown Road are in construction, and a high quality transit line which connects the light rail, metro, and MARC systems with stops in booming waterfront neighborhoods takes things to a new level. Struggling neighborhoods in West Baltimore also benefit from the Red Line through reduced auto expenses and more investment, as these areas suddenly become closer to downtown through convenient transit service on a more comprehensive system. I’ll also mention that the Red Line is undergoing a more comprehensive planning process than any other capital project in the history of Baltimore.

While we’re still decades out from a DC-style metro system, the Red Line is one large step towards an interconnected transit system.  In layman’s terms, when the system is built, you’ll be able to get from Bayview Medical Campus to Woodberry Kitchen with one train transfer. Or, from Canton Square to Mondawmin Mall. Or from Mt. Washington to Harbor East.  Or from BWI to Edmondson Village. You get the idea.

In the mean time, MTA needs to step up its game in improving the existing system so when the Red Line is operational, there are no weak links. This means better service on every level with a focus on user experience. Little things like transparent windows on buses, renaming light rail stations so they reflect more relevant trip generators, real time arrival kiosks and innovative bus maps make life easier for all riders. These things build MTA’s user base, so when the Red Line is ready, more people in the city accept transit as a viable transportation alternative.

That’s what it comes down to; making transit a part of everyday life for a larger percentage of people. Building the Red Line is one more step in that direction.


Why Baltimore Needs The Red Line

Another damn article about the Red Line

So the Red Line has been discussed to death, but I thought Car Free Baltimore should have a say. I often think how much easier my life would be if there were an east/west rail line in Baltimore.  While riding the bus has its charms (eh hum), the predictability and speed of fixed rail transit makes it the standard all over the world.  The arguments for and against the Red Line have been discussed ad nauseum, but here are a few more things to consider:

  • The private sector and downtown: The recent report by Downtown Partnership and news of high downtown vacancy rates indicate a need to bring more residents and businesses downtown. Lack of a comprehensive rail transit system is part of the problem.   Last I checked, a garage costs about $10,000-$12,000 per parking space – a huge cost to companies who want to locate downtown.  Many older office buildings may already have garages, but perhaps not enough spaces for new tenants. Creating better transit options can reduce the need to build new parking spaces, reducing costs to new businesses looking to relocate downtown.  Creating better commuting alternatives from the counties can also go a long way in attracting businesses and new employees. In other words, a comprehensive rail system in the city can lower the cost of doing business here.
  • Residential conversions: The aforementioned Downtown Partnership report calls for older office building to be converted into residential uses. This strategy has been very effective in Lower Manhattan, but most new residents in Manhattan don’t have to bring their cars when they move.  I know paying $100-$200 a month for a parking space would discourage a lot of new downtown residents.  An east-west transit route is the missing link for many of these folks, and may tip the scale toward downtown Baltimore becoming a vibrant, 24-7 transit accessible collection of neighborhoods where driving is considered an option and not a necessity. The Red Line can make living in the city more affordable, and subsequently more competitive with the Maryland suburbs.
  • Planning and inter-agency coordination:  Years of planning work and public involvement have created concepts for proposed Red Line station areas with an eye towards neighborhood improvement.  While no alignment will make every resident happy, it’s safe to say there has been more outreach, input from neighborhoods, and inter-agency coordination for the Red Line than any other local transportation project in recent history, including the existing Metro and light rail systems.
  • Less tangible, long term benefits:  This is a long one, so I’ll just link to the new Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s report on the benefits of comprehensive rail transit systems in major U.S. cities. A run down:
    • Higher per capita transit ridership
    • Lower per capita vehicle ownership
    • Less traffic congestion
    • Lower traffic death rates
    • Lower consumer spending on transportation
    • Higher transit service cost recovery

This ends the obligatory I Support The Red Line post.

Hi MTA, What’s Up? Red Line Surface Route Through Downtown

I’m not trying to stir things up.  Not like when your friend asks, “How’s Mary” when he already knows you broke up last month. I’m just asking an honest question. I wasn’t involved in the Red Line alternatives analysis process, and I plead ignorance to the power structures/power players/political stuff which may have made undergrounding the Red Line through downtown an important, “sellable” part of the project. From my 10 minutes of thinking about this and comparing Baltimore to other cities which have surface light rail systems through their downtowns (Charlotte, Dallas, San Diego, Denver to name a few), it seems like a possibility.

A possible Red Line surface route. 2 short, underground pedestrian tunnels could connect existing downtown metro stops to above ground light rail stations at Light and President Streets.

Instead of listing the reasons why a surface route through downtown would be preferable, let me list the reasons why it was probably taken off the table. I speak only for myself:

  • Howard Street – people say, “light rail killed Howard Street”. This is an oversimplification. While Howard could use more through auto traffic for businesses, the street was already in decline when the system was built. If light rail was the single bullet that killed Howard Street and someone can prove it to me, I’ll buy all 4 of my readers a drink at some neighborhood dive bar.
  • Business/Resident pushback – fair enough. Hearing the light rail screeching on every turn is annoying, but newer systems are sleek, much quieter, and less freight train-ish than our current system. Light rail, below ground or above ground, is good for business and improves property values.
  • Transit travel time/headways – since light rail would run on its own right of way, the transit vehicles really wouldn’t be mingling with traffic. Signal prioritization could help speed things along at intersections.
  • Traffic – fair enough. Losing a lane on Pratt, Lombard, Aliceanna and Fleet may be a hard pill to swallow for the engineers. However, we can safely assume a fast, modern surface route would take lots of cars off the roads, too.

So, MTA, I’m just sayin, you know, if we get hard up and we really need to cut a couple of hundred million off the Red Line budget, maybe this could be the way to go.  In a perfect world, we would underground the whole thing and build the Yellow Line and Green extensions at the same time.  But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.