Thursday, June 25, 2015

So Long Red Line, Thanks for All the Memories

So it looks like the end for the Red Line, at least in its present form; and with it the hope that Baltimore will get any new transit in the next decade. I started this blog back in 2008, and a lot has happened in 7 years: I got married, had a kid with number 2 on the way, bought a house, switched jobs - all of which has led to significantly less Skyline blogging. Anyway, I took a look back at one of the first posts I wrote about the Red Line in 2008. Back then it was supposed to cost $1.6 billion and be up and running by about 2016. Now he we are on June 25, 2015 with federal money committed and backed by Baltimore City and County, and then Gov. Larry Hogan finally pulled the plug on what turned into a $2.9 billion gorilla that wouldn't run until around 2022. There is more to this story, but I'll leave that for another time.

What it all boils down to is this: Baltimore needs better transit. The Red Line wasn't perfect, but it could have worked. The real issue, however, is that it should never have gotten to this. The Red Line was seen as a panacea, it would solve our transit woes and get Baltimore back on its feet. MTA put all their eggs in one basket on this one. Instead of being a smartly designed addition to the system, it tried to be everything to everyone, and in the end got too big and too expensive at the wrong time. Now, all our eggs are smashed. Now what?

Maybe now the MTA in general and Baltimore in particular need to look at improving, enhancing, and expanding what we have currently.

  • This means fixing the Light Rail, so it moves seamlessly through downtown on Howard Street, and making it a more reliable choice. 
  • Being serious about revamping the MTA bus system: better routes, better reliability, improved signage and shelters, better professionalism of the employees, and no tolerance for riders who want to cause problems.
  • At the same time making the Quick Bus routes truly Enhanced Bus Service with signal priority, dedicated lanes where available, and specialized bus livery and stops. 
  • Having a serious discussion about how the Penn and Camden Lines can better serve commuters heading into Baltimore. 
  • Having additional Express and Commuter Bus routes heading into Baltimore City and the job centers in our immediate area. 
While this is going on. Let's start the process for another New Starts bid.
  • Dust off the plans to extend the Metro Subway beyond JHH to either North Ave or to Bayview along the Amtrak ROW, the latter which is favored by Gerald Neilly and the Right Rail folks (which I genuinely believe they are correct about)
  • Couple this with a renewed attempt for a spur line from Lexington Market along Route 40 to West Baltimore MARC as heavy rail, or even light metro if the ridership won't be as high. 
  • Look at taking the Light Rail beyond BWI to the BWI Rail Station and making a better connection with Penn Station. 
While this might be the end of the Red Line, we should still look forward to what we can do to make Baltimore a better and more connected city. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Baltimore's Top Transit Missed Oportunities

Baltimore Sun map from 1930s
  1. The Streetcar Subway: In the 1920s Baltimore floated the idea of burying its streetcar lines under downtown with a loop underneath Fayette and Baltimore Street. Streetcar lines along Pennsylvania Ave, St. Paul Street, and Gay Street would have funneled into tunnels at North Ave with lines from the west going into a tunnel under Baltimore Street, from the east under Eastern Ave along Patterson Park and through Fells Point, from the south under Hanover street through Federal Hill.  This would have created a very extensive subway system in central Baltimore, and would have in all likelihood, like Boston, SF, and Philadelphia saved much of the streetcar network. If this scenario had played out, places like Penn Station, Patterson Park, and the northeast would have been a quick underground trolley ride away from downtown. 
  2. Metro Subway to BWI: The original plan for the for the Baltimore metro called for a spoke-and-wheel system very much like the DC Metro, but that never happened. However the original Phase 1 plan was to have a metro line from Charles Center south through the Inner Harbor, Ledenhall and then along the old WB&A Electric Railway and Baltimore and Annapolis Railway rights-of-way to BWI and Glen Burnie. However, Ann Arundel County balked when it came to funding and construction, and this southern line was never built, as metro. It would be resurrected as the southern portion of the Light Rail in 1992, however with separate spurs for BWI and Glen Burnie, instead of a direct connection to both, leaving BWI with unacceptably long headways of 20 min. peak/30 min. off-peak. See Roads to the Future for more details. 
  3. Metro Extension beyond Johns Hopkins Hospital: The original 2002 plan called for a metro extension all the way to White Marsh, but a more realistic plan was to serve Morgan State University. However, this was then truncated back to North Ave when plans for the Red Line became finalized. Now however, an extension beyond JHH seems completely unlikely. Gerald Neily has pushed an idea to extend the metro instead beyond JHH, under Eager Street and along the Amtrak ROW to Bayview. With a MARC station at Bayview this would provide a one-seat side from Bayview, to JHH, and Charles Center while using existing infrastructure. Additionally this plan would allow for only one MARC station to be built. The current MTA plan envisions two: one at Bayview to connect with the Red Line, and then one at Broadway to connect with the metro subway. An extension to North Ave would allow for a better location for a bus transfer hub where northeast routes could be funneled into meet the subway. 
  4. Building the Red Line has a spur of the Metro Subway: IMO this is the biggest miss opportunity of them all. While it would not have been as extensive as the plan, a metro Red Line could have been envisioned as a spur using the existing Route 40 right-of-way to West Baltimore, a transfer hub at Lexington Market, and then an extension beyond JHH as mentioned above. For far less money, a more integrated system could have been created. further stages could have expanded the lines further west or north/east. New tunnels would be only needed to connect the spur north of Lexington Market, and approx. 1 mile to North Ave or 1.5 miles to extend the line to the Amtrak ROW to Bayview. 
  5. Pursuing the 2002 rail plan for the MARC Penn and Camden Lines: This is another big miss because it would have utilized already existing MARC system to serve as the backbone to a Baltimore-centric rail line. The 2002 plan envisioned the Purple Line to use the Penn Line between Edgwood and Odenton, but added new stations Rossville, Rosedale, Edison Highway, Sandtown, and at the city line north of Arbutus. The Orange Line would use the Camden Line between Camden Station and Dorsey with new stations at Morrell Park and Lansdowne, although and Elkridge station would also work here. These two lines would be designed to get commuters and riders to Baltimore, with more frequent service and weekend service utilizing multiple-unit trainsets. While the rights-of-way and many stations are there, work would need to be done on the Camden Line to add tracks to accommodate more passenger service. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Big Improvements to Light Rail that Would Make For a Better System


  1. In the long term planning, the MTA wants to extend the Light Rail (dubbed the Yellow Line) passed BWI all the way to Columbia, connecting the BWI Rail Station and Dorsey MARC station along the way. I honestly do not think extending the route to Columbia is the best choice. Instead how about extending just to Dorsey. The spur from BWI Business District to the international terminal should be abandoned and This ROW used for a people mover that would connect the parking garages, long term parking, and the terminal with the light rail station. 
  2. Adding infill stations along the route the current route would allow for better access to more communities. The station platforms at Texas are already there; a new park-and-ride station can be added here pretty easily. Walk-up stations should be considered at Ruxton along Bellona Avenue and Remington/Hampden at Wyman Park Drive to access neighborhoods that are currently bypassed. This last station could provide better access to Druid Hill Park
  3. Pursue the proposed Yellow Line north through the city. This would be a very expensive project which would be years down the road, especially considering the anemic pace of the Red Line, and its potential delay now with Larry Hogan as the next governor. I explored this option back in 2013, but a separate Yellow Line would be able to provide necessary rapid transit access to Mount Vernon and Penn Station. The short stub track from the current Light Rail to Penn Station could be abandoned, with the Yellow Line serving as a faster and more efficient connection between MARC/Amtrak and downtown. 
  4. Build a new Camden Yards Station because the current station is a joke; it is way too small and the fabric canopy leaks and is useless if it's windy. A proper station shelter is desperately needed at Camden Yards, preferably one designed to fit nicely with the warehouse and the old Camden Station. A bigger waiting room is a must with larger bathrooms. While a staffed ticketing window may not be necessary, more self-serve kiosks are; currently there is only one for MARC and one for Light Rail. A newsstand/snack/coffee shop could be added for the convenience of commuters and for Orioles fans during baseball season. New canopies should be constructed over the MARC platforms with better lighting and benches. Currently there is only one canopy on one platform that is shared with the southbound light rail. If the above plan to extend the Yellow Line through the Inner Harbor and Mount Vernon is pursued, then a new Camden Yards light rail station, separate from the MARC platforms would need to be built.
Sure this is more ambitious than the small improvements list, and this would be many years down the road, but Baltimore needs to get more visionary with its transit planning and get serious about making a more expansive and connected transit system. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Could the Four Seasons Condos Finally be on the Way?


Tower crane going up alongside the Four Seaons Hotel in Harbor East. Could the long awaited condos finally be on the way, or just more hotel rooms? In any case the revised plan only puts the building at a few more floors, or only as tall as the Legg Mason Building next door. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Why Right Rail is Wrong, and Right

The Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda of the Red Line:

Part of 2002 transit plan

When the Red Line was first proposed in 2002 the decision on the exact route and transportation mode were far from certain. We all know what decision was eventually made, but direction the line took could have turned out much different. A definite missed opportunity was not pursuing a heavy rail option and thinking of the current metro subway as a trunk line that a spur line could split off from. With this in mind the Red Line planners could have built a spur using the a Route 40 ROW - which the current plan calls for - from West Baltimore MARC with stops in Harlem Park and UMB, before turning south and connecting with the metro subway at Lexington Market. Here a proper transportation hub and transfer point could have been built as intended. The line would have allowed for a direct connection to downtown and Johns Hopkins Hospital while using available infrastructure. A small spur, with high capacity, for much less money. 

The expensive part would have been to design and build the rest of the Red Line. With a commitment to heavy rail the planners would have had to either tunnel under Edmonson Ave to reach I-70 which would have added tremendous cost, or built it as elevated which the communities would have met with vehement opposition. It would have not been a total loss to stop at West Baltimore since a transit hub could be built there to connect bus lines, the MARC, and the Red Line. 

To the east, the planners could have decided to do a few things. With not having to build another downtown tunnel the Red Line could have either continued jointly with the metro, and both lines extended past JHH to North Avenue and beyond - as is a current idea - or along the Amtrak ROW to Bayview as Right Rail suggests. Another option, albeit more expensive option, could have been to split the Red Line off after Shot Tower continued to at least Harbor East and Fell's Point, or even further then to Patterson Park or Canton. I have discussed this previously in another post. 

However, this is all a pipe-dream since this was never planned out, and we have the current alight rail plan for the Red Line. Oh well.

Why Right Rail is Wrong:

The Right a Rail Coalition is proposing something along the lines of what is outlined above. The exception being they want the western portion of the Red Line built as light rail, albeit designed for longer trains, and end at Lexington Market with a transfer point. They would then use other funding to build a metro extension along the Amtrak ROW to Bayview. However, they would decide not to extend any rapid transit to the quickly growing Harbor East and the parking strapped Fell's Point and Canton communities. Instead those would be served by streetcars. While streetcars would be good for getting people around those areas, it would not be the best form of transportation to get people across the city in a timely manner. An underground line, while more expensive, can move more rapidly and be unencumbered by traffic while connecting to the larger transit network. (see Yonah Freemark's The Value of Fast Transit).

The Charm City Circulator does a great job moving people around the downtown core, but since it has to sit in the same traffic - much as a streetcar would - it does little to move people quickly and efficiently across longer distances. The Red Line as planned does the right thing by putting the line beneath downtown Baltimore and through the narrow streets of Fell's Point before emerging in Canton. 

The other suggestion of extending the metro to Bayview has merits, it bypasses most of the neighborhoods that would benefit the most from the metro to get to Bayview by the easiest route.  Rather something along the above proposal would be better, either under Baltimore Street or Eastern Avenue, before going to Bayview. (I talked about this in a previous post, but now the maps are messed up) With the cost savings of not building a redundant tunnel, funding could be shifted to these options.

Why Right Rail is Right:

Right Rail Coalition Streetcar Plan

There is one place where the Right a Rail Coalition is spot on: the return of streetcars. Currently there is the Charles Street plan, which is stagnant since the city only wants to focus its attention on the Red Line instead of seeing the value of improving transit more comprehensively. They envision a line along North Ave. between the Zoo and Bayview with a potential extension along Belair Road. This is a great idea, the only change I would make is to cut out the meandering route to Coppin State and go direct to Druid Hill Park along a Druid Hill Ave/McCullough route. The line along Broadway intersects with the North Avenue line and connects JHH with Fells Point and Harbor East, and they have the Charles Street line extended to Federal Hill and Fort McHenry.

The reason these streetcar lines work is that they are designed along wide routes, interconnect with one another and the larger transit network allowing for hubs and transfer points. A streetcar in East Baltimore could work, but it shouldn't try to be in place of rapid transit, nor should it try to connect all the way from Canton to UMB on the surface.

Conclusions:

An Opportunity Missed - Had the Red Line planners had some forethought in 2002 a metro Red Line could have been reality. The program is that it is now 2014 and to try to build any heavy rail extension of our metro is highly unlikely. What we are stuck with is a trunk line metro line that carries far less than it could, with no future prospects extension or a spur. Not making a subway transit hub at Lexington Market was a big mistake.

Think Broadly - The current Red Line plan while not perfect will bring a lot of good to Baltimore. It will allow for a more connected system and moreover connect residents and workers to areas of the city that lack rapid transit. But transit planners need to think more broadly to include modern streetcars - with fixed, direct routes and limited stops - to better integrate transit further out from the core.

Take Steps - The major problem with the Red Line is the insistence that all 14.1 miles be built at once which makes for an incredibly expensive and potentially unwieldy project. Had planners instead thought of the Red Line in stages the metro option could have been made to be viable. The complete DC Metro system was not built all at once, nor was the Baltimore Metro line, so why should the Red Line be any different? 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

New sign along S. Calvert Street.

New sign is up at the future home of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company at 7 S. Calvert Street (historically 202 E. Redwood Street) originally built in 1885 for the Mercantile Trust and Deposit Company. 

as the home of the  Mercantile Trust and Deposit Company, ca. 1958

Friday, May 30, 2014

Rethinking the Camden Line, Phase I

2002 Baltimore Rail Plan
The 2002 Baltimore Rail Plan, besides planning for brand new routes, also envisioned expansion and reimagining of current routes. One of which was the Camden Line. The 2002 plan proposed expanding service to include local, more frequent service between Dorsey and Camden Station, in addition to the current commuter service to Union Station. While the plan did not go into very much detail it did include infill stations, and presumably "light rail" style frequencies. As things go, this never made it past the drawing board as the Red Line got the priority and maybe the Green Line extension next.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't think about how to better use the Camden Line. In fact, with the infrastructure already there it really is a good option to provide better transit service to Baltimore. So let's say there is both funding and the full cooperation of CSX, with that in mind let me propose that we do exactly what the 2002 plan recommends, along with what the 2007 MARC growth and investment plan (plus 2013 revision), wanted to do with regards to the commuter service. This would include adding a third track between Dorsey and St. Denis to allow for better separation and flexibility between freight and passenger service.

This could be viewed as a two-phase plan. Phase One would include DMU service between Dorsey and Baltimore, but with new stations at Morrell Park, Landsdowne in the vicinity of Hammonds Ferry Road, and a return for a station in Elkridge. St. Denis would be expanded with better parking and either an overpass or underpass to cross the tracks. At Dorsey, a pocket track could be built to allow trains to wait for the return trip north without blocking MARC commuter or CSX freight trains.

At Camden Station, a proper station house should be built to replace the abomination currently in use.  A larger waiting room, more than one bathroom, and more than one ticket kiosk are essential. A newsstand or coffee shop would be a nice addition, wi-fi would be better. Platform canopies are also a must. Since all of the other stations are low floor, one of the current platforms here would be rebuilt for low-floor boarding.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Street Collapse on 26th St

photo by Baltimore Business Journal
Collapse of section of 26th Street between St. Paul and N. Charles spilling mud, debris, and cars down on to the CSX (old B&O Belt Line) tracks in Charles Village. The Jones Falls has also flooded in Mt Washington and along Falls Rd near Penn Station and the Streetcar Museum.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Small Improvements to Light Rail That Could Make a Big Impact


  1. Sequence lights on Howard Street so trains can move between stations without having to stop at red lights. This would significantly cut down on the travel time between Mt. Royal/UB and Camden Yards. The technology is there, it just needs to be implemented in a more sensible way. 
  2. Improve passenger information at each station. This would include updating the maps to reflect the current light rail operation. The maps at most stations outside of downtown are poorly designed and show the light rail configuration when the extensions to Penn Station and BWI first opened in 1997. Way-finding and neighborhood maps showing immediate transit connections and local attractions are a must. Posted schedules should be updated immediately whenever a new version of the timetable is made.
    Newer Light Rail map at downtown stations.
  3. Update signs at all stations. A few years back the downtown stations had new signs that replaced the originals from 1992. In addition the stations feature a system diagram, as well as a "At This Stop" sign that highlights a nearby feature. As of now these have not been expanded to the remaining stations on the light rail. FYI This new design can also be seen at the Halethorpe MARC station. 
  4. New neighborhood directional signs. We have all seen the blue and yellow "Light Rail" signs with an arrow pointing in a vague direction to where a light rail station is located. These should be redesigned to include the name of the nearest station and the distance to it. (e.g. Woodberry, 3 Blocks). More are needed especially around walk-up neighborhood stations. A good example is at the Mt. Washington station. There is a walkway underneath I-83 on the side near the Whole Foods, but you would never know because there is not a sign there. If a sign were added, and the walkway better lit, it would add much more accessibility to the retail surrounding the station.
  5. Woodberry Station with unmarked entrance at right.
  6. Improve waiting passenger comfort by adding more benches. There has actually been some improvement with this, but many stations only have benches on one platform, not both. There are some stations that it is impossible to do this, like Baltimore Street and Centre Street because of the narrowness of the platform, but maybe here MTA could add simple canopies that do not interfere with traffic to at least protect people from the rain. 



Friday, February 28, 2014

Check the Flag Code, Baltimore

photo by blogger
Things are moving along at the apartment renovation at 301 N. Charles Street. The developers even added two new flags to the poles that have stood devoid of ensigns for far too long. Except there is just one little problem, they flags are one the wrong poles!

If I remember one thing from the flag etiquette it's that the US flag is always to the left when hanging from a building when there are two poles. It's the same rule the the flag is always to the right of a speaker when on the stage (that is, the left of the stage when viewing from the audience).

The other helpful giveaway on this particular building (and we have the state of Maryland to thank for this) is the finial on the right hand flag pole is in the shape of a bottony cross; which denotes that this is the pole that the Maryland state flag is supposed to fly from.

Really, it's not that complicated. I will now step down from my soapbox rostrum.