August 31, 2015

Governor Mandel's Rail Transit Legacy

Governor Marvin Mandel, who died yesterday at the age of 95, was in many ways the father of Baltimore's rail transit system.

When he became governor in 1969, Baltimore's transit system was still being run by a private company teetering on bankruptcy. Governor Mandel presided over the state's takeover of the bus system to create the Mass (now Maryland) Transit Administration.

The creation of the MTA was highly intertwined with the movement to build a rail system for the Baltimore region.

1968 Baltimore Region Rail Plan - all "heavy rail"
In the previous year, 1968, a full six leg heavy-rail Metro system plan was adopted by the Regional Planning Council (now the Baltimore Metropolitan Council which is the "MPO" for meeting fed regs), with all legs emanating from a central hub at Charles Center. The two top priority projects were declared to be the northwest and south legs.

Many people thought this was a pipe dream, considering not only the expected formidable fiscal and political difficulties, but also the reality that there wasn't even a public entity that was remotely capable of building such a system. There had been idle talk of building a rail system for at least 50 years.

But despite similar controversy and skepticism to what recently killed the Red Line, Governor Mandel actually figured out how to get the system funded and under construction.

Mandel recognized that political support for a south rail line in Anne Arundel County was weak and that the cost of building a multi-line heavy rail transfer station that crisscrossed downtown underneath Charles Center would be extremely high. So he killed the south line and focused solely on building the 14-mile northwest line to Owings Mills, with an 8-mile interim phase to Reisterstown Plaza.

The final agreement to get this project moving was that the second line would be to the north rather than the south. It would also be a far less expensive light rail line along the Jones Falls valley rather than heavy rail through Towson which was an extension of the south line in the previous plan,

Thus Governor Mandel used his pragmatic political skill to get the Metro built, in contrast to the recent strident futility of the MTA and city's Red Line all-or-nothing "No Plan B" 15-year process.

Meanwhile, the eventual corridor of a west rail line was cemented in place by the construction of 1.5 miles of Interstate 70 (US 40) between Franklin and Mulberry Streets, with its median reserved for future transit. After that, however, the west line took a back seat, and all that was ever built is what is now known as the "Highway to Nowhere".

Also in the latter 1970s, the heavy rail west line plan, which would have branched off from the northwest Metro just north of the Lexington Market Station, was replaced with light rail. The concept was to tie the incompatible heavy and light rail lines together through an elevated "downtown people mover" system not unlike what was built to serve the Metro in Miami. The people mover would meet the Metro at Lexington Market. It would then travel eastward and meet the north light rail line at the south end of the Jones Falls valley, at Guilford Avenue and East Saratoga Street.

In the 1980s, the people mover plan died a slow death. The north light rail line plan was moved from the Jones Falls westward to Howard Street through downtown and linked to a south light rail line. Both were quickly built under the impetus of the 1992 opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Metro was then extended slightly eastward to Hopkins Hospital.

The plan throughout the '90s was to link the eventual west line to the north-south light rail lines at Howard Street.

All of this was the ultimate result of Governor Mandel's 1970s push to get the northwest heavy rail Metro built, cancelling the south Metro line and then shifting the focus to light rail.

The main constant has been that every regional rail transit plan formulated for over the past half century since the 1960s has had a west line in the US 40 Franklin-Mulberry corridor, which remains in limbo with the recent cancellation of the Red Line.

Story to be continued...

August 24, 2015

Casino Entertainment District

"Veneer" hotel for Horseshoe Casino as envisioned by Peter Tocco  
Waterfront hotel on a Middle Branch Parkway

Casinos are all about fantasy and illusion. As such, the recently released 184 page master plan for the Horseshoe Casino communities is all about spreading casino winnings to its surrounding areas, very much the same way gamblers fantasize about what they're going to do when they get that big win.

Similarly, the proposed Horseshoe Casino Hotel shown above is just a fantasy illusion, skillfully photo-shopped onto a picture of the Middle Branch by Peter Tocco. This hotel's illusion is based on being just a thin veneer which would wrap-around and hide the monster parking garage that the casino built on its waterfront. Such veneers have become popular and fashionable in postmodern architecture, including in Baltimore.

But right now, the giant parking garage is what drivers on Interstate 95 see as the casino's lure. That's not much of a fantasy. What they ought to see is a glamorous hotel conveying the message of opulence and possible riches, or at least being "comped" for a free night.

The rear of the 3400 car casino parking garage as it encroaches on the Middle Branch waterfront seen from underneath I-95. It's a huge footprint, but it looks far more dominating as seen from I-95 above. M&T Bank stadium is shown to the right (north).

The "Gateway Master Plan"

There's not much basis in the master plan report for this fantasy. Mostly, it's just a "plan to do a plan" - trying to get "buy-in" from the local stakeholders for whatever happens. Maybe we'll win, maybe we won't. At this point, the casino's future success is dubious at best due to killer competition from Arundel Mills and National Harbor.

The report hardly even mentions the casino, the impetus for all this, any more than it has to. The physical plan recommendations begin on page 130 (pdf page 138) through page 143.

Here is the entirety of the report's recommendations directly pertaining to the casino area:

"A new entertainment district along Warner Street would connect the Horseshoe Casino and M&T Bank Stadium and offer restaurants, shopping, hotels and other entertainment choices. The City should establish specific land use recommendations, restrictions and urban design guidelines for the Warner Street area, including options for improving pedestrian safety at the CSX Railroad crossing. The design study should also explore land use changes and public improvements for Russell Street."

"RECOMMENDATIONS 1 Conduct a land use and urban design study to establish the vision for a new entertainment district along Warner Street and portions of Russell Street. The study should consider how best to enhance and take advantage of nearby access to the Middle Branch waterfront."

Very well and good. It would have been nice if the city had taken this idea seriously before the casino was built, when the casino's giant parking garage was allowed to dominate and displace Warner Street and the waterfront. This severely reduces the flexibility in how to balance urban and natural needs. The waterfront was an afterthought, hidden away and therefore vulnerable to any kind of abuse. 

It's also essentially too late to "explore land use changes and public improvements for Russell Street." The street recently underwent a major rehab and its downscale gas stations and convenience stores are now being replaced by higher-class gas stations and convenience stores. So much for a "gateway".

So the real key to creating greater connectivity to the city's surrounding urban fabric must now be to shun the gasoline-alley pseudo-suburbia of Russell Street and create a new far more urban and human-oriented gateway along the waterfront. There's no other choice.

Middle Branch Parkway

This can be achieved by creating a new two-mile Middle Branch Parkway which extends all the way from Conway Street at the cusp of Camden Yards, the convention center and Downtown, southward to Westport and Waterview Avenue. Its goal is to create the most flexible possible public realm, optimized to balance development and nature.


Proposed Middle Branch Parkway extending from Westport (left) northward to Camden Yards and downtown (right). This would be the casino's new waterfront address.

The parkway should be built to accommodate slow moving auto access, but it should also be closable for any kind of event - sports events, cycling events, drinking events (pushed out of Federal Hill), gambling events, festivals or even just weekend solitude.

In the Camden Yards area to the north, the Middle Branch Parkway should create urban street frontages for the Oriole Park Warehouse and the MARC Station, air rights development sites over I-395 and the railroad tracks, new development sites carved out of the expansive surface parking lots and better edge definition for the remaining parking lots.

South of Stockholm Street nearer the casino, development opportunities are more limited. The emphasis should be placed on creating an urban edge for the waterfront area to promote surveillance, maintenance and a constituency to prevent "out of sight, out of mind" neglect and abuse.

To do this, the development footprints for the parking lot and adjacent animal shelter sites along the water should be relatively small to leave more room there for parkland and nature. These two parcels are arguably the most important in the entire Middle Branch, because they are the closest to the South Baltimore and Pigtown neighborhoods, accessible via the Ostend Street underpass which avoids conflict with Russell Street, and from Sharp Street which avoids conflict with the CSX mainline railroad crossing on Warner. Sharp Street is also particularly close to the huge new Caves Valley development.

There's plenty of room left over for nature, a waterfront parkway and a hotel attached to the veneer of the Horseshoe Casino parking garage, The downtown skyline in the distance (right) can be made to look like Oz's Emerald City instead of the gasoline-alley gateway on Russell Street. (Maybe the parkway can even be built as a Yellow Brick Road.)

This would be compensated, however, by the casino hotel site on the long narrow veneer of the parking garage. The city obviously does not think development near the casino has much potential anyway, as evidenced by their leaving the Greyhound Bus terminal on the site just to the south. Eventually, this should also be replaced by something more appropriate and Greyhound should get a much more suitable and less isolated site.

South of the casino, the parkway would extend underneath the I-95/I-395 interchange, a vast surrealistic underworld that seems fascinating (to me anyway) in a postmodern juxtaposed kind of way. The hidden isolated nature of this area means that it is currently severely trashed, but it has tremendous creative potential. 

South of I-95, Westport starts, and the billion-plus dollar development site recently purchased by Under Armour's Kevin Plank, which would be the strong southern anchor for the parkway. The north end of Westport in the shadow of I-95 is slated for parkland, but as currently configured, it would be difficult to maintain a pristine park to the south while ignoring the adjacent I-95 catacombs. The parkway would unify them in a much more coherent and sustainable manner.

The success of the long delayed Westport development would also benefit great from the parkway, creating the direct linkage that would make Westport a downtown community instead of an isolated island. 

A new North Westport light rail station station could also be built to provide decent access to the casino, bus station, and a future spur to the rest of the Under Armour empire at Port Covington (see blog article).

The need for a casino hotel

The need for a casino hotel is far stronger now than when the casino was in its planning stages. The original statewide enabling legislation called for high tax "slots barns" which would focus simply on local patrons who did not want to travel to more lucrative out of state gambling venues.

The stakes were greatly increased when the state added table games, slashed the tax rate and approved an additional world-class casino at National Harbor near Washington, DC. Concurrently, the Arundel Mills casino just  few miles down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway started dominating the high stakes competition with Baltimore's Horseshoe. They have recently announced that they will build a hotel attached to their casino.

Baltimore must find its comparative advantage in this competition. It can only be in emphasizing its urbanity over its Russell Street frontage amid the gas station/convenience stores.


Peter Tocco's more "over the top" alternative design for a veneer hotel attached to the casino's waterfront parking garage.

The hotel itself would be just a means to an end - the image it conveys. The casino marketers and city image-makers need to decide how to best present the casino to its market. It may be a tasteful facade or it may be Vegas-style, over-the-top. That must be negotiated. There are already examples of how our once clean, sleek Inner Harbor has been made over by the image-makers, with a giant guitar attached to a smoke stack and a cartoon monster wrapped around a Harborplace entrance. 

Baltimore is past the point of no return on gambling. The casino must be re-oriented to the waterfront and the waterfront must be reoriented to downtown. It's all about reinforcing the casino's image as a place of fantasy and illusion. The casino parking garage must be given a new active waterfront facade with an address on a parkway which integrates the Middle Branch with downtown.

August 17, 2015

Lexington Market Metro Transit Hub

Re-centering the rail transit system
Lexington Market Metro Station - A short passageway to the Howard Street light rail line can be built
into this wall behind the turnstiles on the mezzanine to the Hutzler's Clay Street portico (see photo below). 

Baltimore's east and west sides have gotten severely out of balance. An urban realignment is needed to enable real connectivity in the transit system and thus maximize economic opportunity

Baltimore's has a hub and spoke transit system based on its geography, but the central hub is weak or non-existent.

The first step in creating workable connected rail transit is thus to give the system a real central hub. And the only practical place to do this is at the Lexington Market Metro Station.

Since the 1960s, this kind of connectivity has always been an essential element of every rail transit plan, but the city has failed to do its job to enable this to happen. Over the past 20 to 40 years, the city has allowed downtown to move steadily eastward, leaving the Howard/Lexington area as a largely boarded-up shell of its former self.

Then in planning for the defunct Red Line, the MTA responded by proposing its downtown transit hub to be built around an isolated two-block long pedestrian tunnel between the defunct Red Line and Metro at Charles Center. That was half-hearted at best. While the Red Line's abandoned 65% completed engineering drawings of the tunnel and stations showed great detail, they still showed only sketchy outlines of how that pedestrian tunnel might actually be built. It seemed inevitable that this severable tunnel would remain unbuilt even if the rest of their Red Line plan had somehow gone forward.

The MTA couldn't even do its job at what is rapidly becoming the new downtown at Harbor East and Harbor Point. Lead developer John Paterakis rejected the MTA plan and forced them to move the Harbor East station to a much more isolated spot between Harbor East and Little Italy.

The city has also failed in that the new east-leaning downtown is far more auto-oriented than the old downtown. The city's tallest building, the USF&G come Legg Mason come Transamerica come COPT Tower, had to build a new parking garage to become marketable. The city's newest growth centers are off on peninsulas (Harbor Point and Port Covington) and marching into what was the industrial waterfront along Clinton Street 5 to 8 blocks away from the Canton Crossing Red Line station site, which is across the street from a new suburban-style shopping center.

The traditional downtown role is probably now gone forever, but a central transit hub is still needed as much as ever, as an organizing element and for transfers. Baltimore still has a huge captive transit ridership base and there is also a growing market of people looking for a "transit lifestyle".

The Lexington Market area is still popular among this transit captive group, but they have insufficient income to trigger investment. The hyped-up "downtown as a neighborhood" trend is filling the void created by the loss of downtown as the center of the region, but so far this has happened in all other directions much more than on the west side, near Lexington Market or beyond. As a result, transit's image is of a downscale market, and the Red Line's attempt to change this has been hollow. Even if somehow built, once the Red Line's "new car smell" had worn off, it would have been just another captive transit mode.

The city's greatest challenge is not to just build an ill-conceived transit line by chasing regional development trends going in the opposite direction in an attempt to be "transformative" (catchphrase du jour, replacing "game changer"). It's to make the most of what we already have, and build upon that.

Lexington Market Metro Transit Hub

Downtown rail system - Existing Metro Subway Green Line and Surface Light Rail Blue Line,
and a proposed west-only Red Line. 

Geographically, it is readily apparent that Lexington Market should be the place for the city's central transit hub, where the Metro (green line) and central light rail (blue line) come closest, and where the Red Line can most easily meet them.

The Metro is far-and-away the best, fastest and highest capacity transit mode that Baltimore is likely to have in the conceivable future and therefore must serve as the trunk.

Even in the MTA's defunct disjointed Red Line plan, 22% of riders on the entire line were projected to be transfers to or from the Metro, while 10% would be to-or-from the existing central light rail, for a total of almost one-third between the rail lines. This should be augmented by a significant volume of bus transfers.

The Hutzler's Clay Street portico (left background) is an ideal place to connect the existing Metro and Light Rail lines.
Hutzler's was once the city's premiere department store, but now sits vacant along with much of Howard Street.
Here's what can be done in the near term to make the Lexington Market Metro station into the system's true central transit hub:

1- Link Light Rail and Metro - Build a short pedestrian connection between the existing light rail and Metro stations, using the Hutzler's Clay Street portico shown in the photo above. The ground slopes to promote this. When the Metro was built in the 1980s, a pedestrian plaza was provided there as part of Hutzler's Department Store's last-gasp renovation before it was closed up for good. This can be reopened and extended down into the Metro mezzanine itself (beyond the turnstiles in the top photo), rather than into the shuttered department store.

In the diagram below, this connection is the narrow dark red link from the big blue box (the Howard light rail station) at the far right to the big green box (Metro station under Eutaw Street). 

Possible Lexington Market Transit Hub - Existing Metro subway station in green.
Existing light rail (right) and MTA parking lot (top) in blue. Existing Metro entrances in pink.
Proposed Red Line station and portal and pedestrian passageway in red.

2- Create a Bus Hub - A convenient place for bus transfers can be created using the MTA's parking lot (blue box at the top of the diagram above) just north of their operations building which hovers over the Metro entrance in the northeast corner of Eutaw and Saratoga Streets (pink box in the diagram above). This building is also shown in the photo below, with the parking lot on the other side of the fence in the left foreground.

This bus hub is needed not just for transfers but also as a staging area for various bus lines terminating downtown. The parking lot is now used by MTA employees who prefer to drive rather than use their free transit passes.

MTA Metro Operations Building looking southward on Eutaw toward Saratoga. The Metro entrance is on its ground level
and the parking lot beyond the fence in the left foreground can be converted into a bus transfer hub.

3 - Make room for a west leg of the Red Line - This is shown along or under Saratoga Street on the left sides of both diagrams above. It can be on the street's surface, tieing into and sharing the Howard Street light rail station shown above, or it can be in a "cut and cover" alignment under Saratoga tieing into the Metro mezzanine.

In the "cut and cover" option, the tunnel portal would be two blocks to the west, just beyond Greene Street where Saratoga widens and has a big downward slope, ideal for a light rail line going underground. In the existing Metro mezzanine, the Red Line terminal station would be just beyond where the wall is in the photo below, just to the right of the Metro turnstiles. (The Red Line has been designed to operate without turnstiles.)

In either of these "Plan B" Red Line options, the MTA has already done most of the planning and much of the engineering. The only new planning would be for this 4 to 5 block portion on Saratoga Street between MLK Boulevard and the Metro Station.

The essential requirement is eliminating the defunct Red Line's "fatally flawed" 3.4 mile tunnel through downtown, which totally bypasses the Metro, exacerbates the lack of a central hub for the rail transit system and further reinforces the city's severe east-west development imbalance. It was that tunnel that led to the downfall of the MTA Red Line project after 15 years of planning.

Lexington Market Metro mezzanine under Saratoga Street.
The Red Line platforms could be located just beyond this wall to the right of the turnstiles.

August 10, 2015

The "Plank Line" from Westport to Port Covington


Make room for opportunistic rail transit

The MTA Red Line died because its waterfront tunnel was way too expensive, yet that's just the part proponents pointed to for major new development. But it's far easier to build a different line using existing rail right of way and vacant land with far more new development opportunities.

After the 15 year Red Line ordeal, perhaps Baltimore's next rail transit line should be short, quick, relatively inexpensive and truly in sync with future development. But only if the timing is right.

The recent announcement that Baltimore's billionaire Kevin Plank has bought the Westport waterfront underscores a major lesson: Development is all about timing. Great developers have it, while the rest of us - planners, bureaucrats, spin-meisters and other mere mortals - don't.

Less successful developers certainly don't have it. Patrick Turner assembled the Westport properties a decade ago at great cost and fanfare which ended with his recent foreclosure, whereby Under Armour magnate Plank picked them up at the fire-sale price of just $6 million, after also buying development rights to Port Covington across the water from various landholders.

Western Maryland railroad right-of-way in Port Covington looking toward
 Westport in 2007. It still looks about the same except Patrick Turner
had the Westport building in the background demolished.

Big businesses don't necessarily have it. Wal-Mart and The Sun bought into Port Covington early-on, even though their ugly sprawled-out buildings were totally out of keeping with the urban hype and vision.

Most of the city's vacant buildings and lots are monuments to bad timing, fueled by bad planning. Worst of all are bad mega-deals where some kind of arbitrary long-range development and payback timing is preordained, then kicked down the road whence the lawyers end up sorting it out. More and more deals are ending up that way.

The MTA and the City don't have it. They built the central light rail line and formulated the Middle Branch vision for Westport and Port Covington back in the 1980s and 1990s and have been waiting for riders and development ever since.

The recently failed $3-billion-plus MTA Red Line transit plan was predicated upon filling its billion-plus dollar funding gap with a convoluted 30-40 year "public-private partnership" that promised to be a disaster in the making.

Learning Our Lessons

At least when the Central Light Rail line was built in the early '90s, the inevitable cost overruns were resolved by cheapening up the plan rather than mortgaging or foregoing our future. That caused some further temporary pain as the second track was built later, and much of it is still in disarray, but it's fixable. Even simple matters like better traffic signal timing and decent pedestrian connections would help immensely.

The worst part is the region's chronic failure with "transit oriented development", which has left Westport, Howard Street and State Center to crumble in the clutches of speculators.

The Red Line would have attempted to resolve this problem in the worst possible way. Half its huge cost was to be devoted to a 3.4 mile tunnel to allow it to serve areas which are already being developed anyway in concert with automobile dependency. That's the worst of both worlds, as evidenced by John Paterakis forcing the Harbor East station to be tucked away rather than being oriented to serve the prime Central Avenue growth corridor from Harbor Point to Old Town.

The way out of this institutionalized mess is to develop plans which are not dependent upon timing. The city should instead focus on how to build the basic infrastructure necessary to allow the best projects to rise to the top, without convoluted long-term subsidies that undercut competition and transparency.

Fortunately, the best designed transit line the city can ever hope to have is already in place - the 16-mile Metro. And the best designed portion of the Central Light Rail Line is the two-miles between downtown, Camden Yards and Westport. The rest of its south leg to Cherry Hill and BWI-Marshall Airport is pretty good too. All of this is something to build upon.

The Plank Line

The immensity of Kevin Plank's new Under Armour Empire between Westport and Port Covington has big pitfalls, but also creates big opportunities. One of the biggest is the possibility of building an inexpensive 1.5 mile light rail spur between them which would enable "transit oriented development" on a scale that the Red Line could only dream of.

Coupled with the best two- miles of the existing light rail line, this would create a strong, seamless connection to Camden Yards, the Convention Center, the Pratt Street Inner Harbor corridor, and the portion of downtown which most desperately needs to be revitalized. It would also create an easy path for local tycoons to get to the airport to visit the rest of the Under Armour World Empire, while mingling with their customers from Cherry Hill to Linthicum.

Unused West Maryland Railroad bridge over Middle Branch, as shown in 2007 City Planning Commission report.

The signature element of the Plank Line would be the old Western Maryland Trestle Bridge which is already on the drawing boards for revitalization as part of the Middle Branch bike/hike path system. This portion of the Plank Line would probably need only one track, leaving plenty of room to accommodate the adjacent joggers and bikers actively modeling their Under Armour-ware.

The former Western Maryland rail right-of-way continues under Hanover Street and into Port Covington, which used to be its great port terminal freight yard. At the Sun plant, the Plank Line can turn southward down to the Wal-Mart and its adjacent abandoned Sam's Club, which Under Armour is now adapting for waterfront office space. Charles Street can also be extended southward through the McComas/CSX spaghetti to provide an umbilical cord between the Plank Line, Port Covington and the existing South Baltimore neighborhoods. Even congested Hanover Street can be upgraded as its spiffy new median strip at the south end of the existing neighborhood demonstrates.

All of this should be planned now, but should not be built until and unless development is ready for it.

Defunct Wal-Mart Sam's Club is now being rebuilt and reoriented to the water for Under Armour (Kevin's Club?)

The Near Term

A new North Westport station along the existing central light rail line could be built sooner if opportunities warrant. While ultimately it would anchor the Westport end of the Under Armour empire and enable transfers to catch the light rail to the airport, it could also be the closest "terra firma" for a light rail station to serve the Horseshoe Casino via an extension of the Middle Branch Greenway. This could provide the great urban waterfront front-door image that the casino needs to displace its gasoline-alley persona across from all the gas station/convenience stores on Russell Street.

Strong measures are also needed right now to start arresting the eastward drift of the downtown, which has been integral to the failure of Westport, Howard Street, and the entire light rail ridershed. The central light rail line needs to be worth connecting to.

The clearest way to do this is to integrate the light rail and Metro stations at Lexington Market into a strong central transit hub, something all successful modern rail transit systems have. This could include a direct pedestrian connection through the Hutzler's Clay Street portico, a bus hub on the MTA parking lot north of Saratoga, and a link to a west-only Red Line.

The recent extension of the Under Armour Empire westward to Westport could thus help guide the direction of the entire city. A 1.5 mile "Plank Line" could be instrumental in reinforcing this, but only if and when the timing is right.

August 6, 2015

Highway cavern can forge a new city transit culture

What Baltimore needs as desperately as better transit is a genuinely viable transit culture - where transit is a welcome and central part of the lifestyle, not just a necessary imposition. Unfortunately, transit in Baltimore is mostly the latter, and mostly limited to low income "captive riders" given greater scrutiny due to the recent West Baltimore "unrest".
The Harlem Park Red Line Station could look like this...

But West Baltimore's "Highway to Nowhere" is just sufficiently far to the fringe to pull off such a cultural transformation. Even if the Red Line is only reserved a future place of honor rather than built tomorrow, it can be done. The important thing is to simply create a good encompassing plan to replace the anachronistic highway and the massive abandoned Metro West Social Security complex.

We already know the highway isn't needed. It's been closed sporadically for the past several years with no significant ill-effects, even while its next major alternate route on Frederick Avenue was also closed for bridge rehab. If it ever was possible, it's now too late to create a plan based on weaving the highway corridor back into the surrounding neighborhoods - there's not enough of them left to do it.

Marc Szarkowski's rendering above, based on the MTA's rendering of the Harlem Park Red Line Station below, creates a world apart that could also create a world together. Development would have two street levels, one down in the new transit "ditch", and the other up at the level of Franklin and Mulberry Streets and their overpasses. The highway's retaining walls could either be demolished or retained to "wrap" around the new development. There would be a street for cars on one side of the transit line and a conflict-free street for people on the other side.
...but this was the MTA Plan for the Harlem Park Red Line Station inside the "Highway to Nowhere".

This kind of transformation is what is needed to create true "transit-oriented development" - a thus a true transit-oriented culture. Seeing literally becomes believing.

Light rail on Howard Street tried to do something like this, shoving off the street traffic in the 1980s. To be exact, Howard Street had already been converted to a vacuous bus mall before light rail came along, while already losing the battle for both the downtown retail and office markets.

The MTA's recently defunct $3 Billion Red Line plan was also a weak gesture toward a transit culture, but virtually everywhere it would have been fighting a losing battle for attention with traffic or burrowed out of the way deep in the ground.

The Red Line planners tried to pretend that the "Ice House" (left) north of the east end of the highway corridor was the pivotal site for transit oriented development, but that's just where through traffic is most concentrated to get through the Amtrak underpass. There was no chance for a true "orientation". Plus, the nearby MARC commuter rail station is now planned to ultimately move farther away to avoid the big curve in the tracks. And if MARC was somehow a great opportunity for new development, the Penn Station area would have taken off decades ago, instead of waiting for arts and education to become the true catalysts.

The best opportunities for urban integration are all at the opposite end of the highway corridor nearer downtown - not only the necessary and crucial redevelopment of the massive Metro West site, but also the University of Maryland campus, the gorgeous but isolated Heritage Crossing neighborhood, and transforming MLK Boulevard into a people place.

The state's recognition that the Red Line's downtown tunnel was fatally flawed also means the Red Line's goals must be changed, even if its west side alignment is kept all or mostly intact. The Red Line in any form will NOT transform the transit system. It was way too slow, low capacity and disconnected to do that. Only the bus system, the Metro, and their interrelationship can be the main elements of any MTA transformation.

Most basically, a far less expensive west-only Red Line should be designed for shorter trips. An effective transit-oriented development plan would augment this, encouraging more casual hop-on, hop-off trips that are actually part of a lifestyle. Just hop on and off to go to the MARC station, Lexington Market, a college class or wherever.

There could be up to three additional stations in the short new segment between the west Red Line and downtown, all encouraging shorter trips, such as:

  • At the Lexington Market Metro Station - Saratoga near Eutaw and Howard,
  • At the University of Maryland and Metro West - Saratoga near MLK Blvd or Pine Street.
  • At Heritage Crossing - at a newly reconnected Fremont Avenue.
Heritage Crossing with the empty Metro West Tower in the background, separated by two hidden but heavy highways, MLK Boulevard and the "Highway to Nowhere".

The redevelopment in these three areas must be planned at the same time as the "Highway to Nowhere" redevelopment. Strong possibilities for this would include a north expansion of the university campus along Pine Street into the Metro West site, a strengthened greenway path along the west side of MLK Boulevard (including compressing the roadway) and an expansion of Heritage Crossing to the south and west.
The dreary, dominant, depressive "Highway to Nowhere"

Urban designers will no doubt think of some great design details. How about replacing one block of the big "Highway to Nowhere" retaining wall with an amphitheater that steps down into the ditch?

This could all be part of a new culture. Most new Baltimore development has used the harbor as the organizing element for its cultural identity. Transit is a much more proactive way of doing the same thing.

September 5, 2013

Integrating Light Rail and Streetcars

How the Red Line and streetcars can live well and affordably together

Baltimore can have a rail transit system that accommodates light-rail and streetcar vehicles on the same lines, if not always in the same places, to take advantage of the best of both.

Modern streetcars and light-rail vehicles have evolved to become practically one and the same. The conflicts and confusion between them arise only because of their design flexibility.

State transportation planners has abused that flexibility in an effort to cram the Red Line into places where it just doesn’t belong and can’t work well. But the same flexibility could be used to integrate light-rail and streetcar systems to work well and affordably together, tailoring them to their specific environments.

Why the Red Line Fails

The proposed Red Line fails because the three-mile-long tunnel from West Baltimore to Boston Street through downtown will consume so much money – $1.2 billion and rising – that it puts the whole project out of reach.

To deal with the extraordinary cost of the tunnel, Maryland Transit Administration planners have shrunk the station platforms to handle only two-car trains. This despite higher projected ridership than the Baltimore Metro carries on its six-car subway trains.

The Red Line route – from Woodlawn in Baltimore County to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus – is far too slow for a regional system. Regardless of how prospective riders react to its less than 20-mph average speed, the lengthy 45 minute end-to-end travel time with only two-car trains would result in very poor productivity. Feeding bus routes into the line would have very limited benefit.

As presently designed, the Red Line is an expensive, slow, low-capacity “money pit” that is also facing citizen opposition in Canton and elsewhere.

The downtown tunnel isolates the line from the existing Metro subway, requiring a dysfunctional two-block-long pedestrian tunnel for transfers. It also isolates the line from street activity and major destinations it purports to serve, like the Inner Harbor, Harbor East and Fells Point.

Harbor East developer John Paterakis has gone on record as opposing a station at Central Avenue, which would serve his development and Harbor Point, the adjoining office-apartment complex set to receive $107 million in city TIF financing bonds.

Across town, the two stations that were going to serve the University of Maryland’s downtown campus and Medical Center – at Lombard and Greene streets and Martin Luther King Blvd. at Lexington – have had to be eliminated due to cost and engineering problems with the tunnel.

Adding Streetcars to the Mix

Streetcars are the solution. Not only are they far less expensive and more convenient than light rail, but because using surface streetcars for a portion of the Red Line corridor can enable the rest of the line to be built in a far more effective and integrated way – and at a far more reasonable price.

The Red Line’s route is not the major issue here. Much of the planning and design work already done can be salvaged. The main question is which segment of the Red Line should be designed to accommodate high-capacity light-rail trains and which should be designed to handle only single-unit streetcars.

These segments can overlap for greater connectivity and flexibility, since streetcars can be accommodated virtually anywhere (with some adjustments to its overhead electrical system and car-body design).

The potential for streetcars in the Red Line corridor should have been clearly suggested when the Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Alternatives Analysis by the MTA concluded that the all-surface option had by far the highest cost effectiveness.

Streetcars were not studied but would cost even less than the all-surface option, since they don’t need the kind of dedicated right-of-way which has worked so poorly on Howard Street. Inexplicably, the MTA rejected the surface option despite its numerical superiority in favor of the tunnel option.

Here’s how a combined light rail/streetcar Red Line could work: The west leg of the Red Line from downtown to Woodlawn, serving the Social Security complex and the Security Square shopping mall, should be designed to accommodate the longest light-rail trains possible, at least three cars, rather than the two-car trains currently proposed.

This west leg constitutes the longest portion of the line, where peak capacity and economies of scale are critical. Accommodating three-car trains (or perhaps four shorter cars) should pose no problem as long as they don’t need to go into the currently proposed downtown tunnel with its expensive underground stations.
Surface streetcars should be used through downtown and the southeast waterfront from the Inner Harbor to Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton.

That will enable the line to fit in well with the existing 19th century streetscape environments of the waterfront and allow stations to be located as close to the most active areas as possible without unseemly disruption. John Paterakis should be far more pleased if his station is nestled along an existing sidewalk near the heart of Harbor East.

Providing additional stations would also become feasible. Harbor East and Central Avenue (the gateway to Harbor Point) should each have separate stations. The Inner Harbor could easily have separate stations adjacent to Harborplace, the Aquarium, and Piers 5 and 6 – rather than just one station hidden 70 feet underneath Lombard Street.

The Greene Street station serving the University of Maryland Medical Center could then be restored.

Let the Metro Prevail

The next question is where multi-car light-rail service should end and single-car streetcar service should begin.

Streetcar service could go as far west as operationally viable, but a logical terminus would be the West Baltimore MARC station, which has long been touted as an important destination for downtown Red Line trips. Streetcar and light-rail service would thus overlap between there and downtown.

As for how best to terminate west leg light-rail service, many options and factors should be weighed, but here is one very clearly beneficial way to go:

A short light-rail spur can be built along Saratoga Street from MLK Blvd. directly into the Lexington Market Metro station mezzanine, terminating with a two-block tunnel from Greene to Eutaw Street.

Saratoga is very wide and has a nice hill just west of Greene Street where a tunnel portal can be tucked in. The MTA says that running a new transit line into the Metro itself is infeasible, despite being proposed since the 1960s. But adding a Red Line “west wing” to the Lexington Market station is the next best thing – and far better than the proposed two-block long pedestrian passageway.

Another surface Red Line station on Saratoga for UMB and the redeveloped Metro West complex could also easily be provided near Pine Street.
The Lexington Market station could be enhanced to transform it into the comprehensive downtown transit hub the visionaries have been dreaming about for decades.
A short escalator connection from the mezzanine could lead directly up to the Howard Street light-rail line, and the adjacent existing MTA employee parking lot on Eutaw Street could be converted into a bus transfer hub.
The biggest advantage of this set-up, however, is that it would maximize use of the underutilized Metro, which is by far Baltimore’s fastest, most efficient, and highest capacity transit mode, and provide a far more efficient eastward backbone connection for the Red Line than the proposed expensive Red Line tunnel.
Extending the Metro East
Accordingly, building a short eastward Metro extension from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Hopkins Bayview along the Amtrak right of way (there’s plenty of room on the south side) would be the ideal complement to this plan.
The route should include a comprehensive bus/rail/streetcar transit hub, with a MARC commuter rail station at Edison Highway near Monument Street. This is a far better location for a MARC-Red Line connection than the present isolated site  inside the Norfolk Southern freight rail yard at Bayview.
Even more importantly, the Edison Highway site would have a far larger rider “catchment area” encompassing most of east and northeast Baltimore and Baltimore County, enabling a far more efficient feeder bus network.
Another huge advantage of a Metro extension is that it could easily accommodate future branches to White Marsh, Dundalk, Middle River and other places.
The extended Metro would instantly become the “Hopkins Corridor,” with a six-minute ride reinforcing the strong synergy between the two health campuses, and stations for East Baltimore Development’s Biotech Park and the MARC station to Washington in between.

Goal: Service Flexibility

An integrated light rail/streetcar/Metro system would provide far superior transit for less than the $2.6 billion pricetag of the MTA Red Line.
It could be built in as many phases as the funding flow allows, unlike the Red Line that can only be built in one unaffordable $2.6 billion chunk in order to conform to its cost effectiveness claim.
This system would provide tremendous service flexibility, such as:
• Red Line A from Woodlawn to Lexington Market Metro Station.
• Red Line B from Woodlawn to Inner Harbor via surface streetcar route.
• Streetcar A from the West Baltimore MARC station via Inner Harbor to Canton.
• Streetcar B from Lexington Market Metro station via Inner Harbor and Canton to East MARC station.
• Metro from Owings Mills via downtown and East MARC station to Bayview.
(And not to mention a Lexington Market connection to the Howard Street light-rail line for north-south travel, and potential streetcar lines along Charles Street, the southwest Mount Clare corridor and other places.)
By adopting an integrated approach, Baltimore could have the true rail transit system it has wanted for decades and would follow the innovative systems now being built in places like Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco and neighboring Washington, D.C.

February 19, 2013

Red Line: All things to all people

The Red Line on the east and west sides are at fundamental odds with each other, so that neither can be built right. The solution is to split the Red Line in two to build what's best for everyone.
The MTA and their co-conspirators have actually attempted to use the proposed Red Line's absurd lack of focus to their advantage. The MTA is using its modest attributes - being slow, small, and tucked away - to argue that the Red Line would also simultaneously do all the things that the very biggest, fastest, highest powered and most connected urban rail transit lines can do.

But rail transit lines are wildly different. The Washington Metro has huge eight-car platforms, is highly connected, easily goes faster than competing automobile traffic, and dominates its urban environment. In contrast, Baltimore's Red Line has only been designed with skinny two-car platforms, isn't connected to much of anything, and would be slower than even some buses, much less cars. So some Red Line supporters have conjured very attractive images of a nice benign little rail transit line going through neighborhoods, while others encouraged people to believe it would work like the DC Metro.
The attribute which most dictates what a rail transit line ought to do is its length. At 14 miles, the Red Line needs to be able to accommodate long city-to-suburban trips, which means it ought to be fast and big. Which the Red Line is not. And in pretending to be fast and big, it will fail to live up to its expectations and image.

The solution is to quit pretending the Red Line can be something it can't be - a high-speed regional rail line spanning east and west Baltimore. And turn it into what it can be - an attractive, modest, civilized short-distance mode in East Baltimore and something else entirely in West Baltimore and its suburbs.

Case in Point: Highlandtown

In 2009, the Southeast and Greektown Community Development Corporations prepared a really outstanding "vision plan" which focused on transforming Highlandtown's largely underused old industrial district into a vibrant new urban community. And very logically, the proposed Red Line would be a centerpiece of this community. Their concept of what the Red Line should look like in their new community is shown in the illustration above (from page 31).

But this would not be a regional Red Line of the type that would provide high capacity, rapid rail service across the entire width of the city into the western suburbs, as promoted by the MTA. The Highlandtown plan shows a vision of a small, slow civilized Red Line that would wind along a quiet intimate urban street.

The city and MTA rejected the Highlandtown plan. The MTA Red Line "preferred alternative" was already slow enough at 45 minutes from end to end, and its two car trains were already barely big enough to accommodate the promised ridership needed to justify its $2.5 billion price tag. The MTA could not afford to make it any smaller or slower in order to fit on the proposed streets of the Highlandtown plan.
The MTA also needed a large "park and ride" lot at the Canton Crossing/Brewer's Hill Station to attract riders who couldn't be projected to use feeder buses. That meant that the surrounding development had to be of the faux "transit oriented" type, rather than the real thing shown in the Highlandtown plan. The new housing nearing completion (shown above) had to be of the veneer style that wraps around a massive parking garage, and the new retail center under construction had to be one of those Potemkin movie-set "main streets" rather than the real thing.

This area, just south of Highlandtown, is situated just beyond the existing fringe of urban development. To the west and north, there is Canton and Highlandtown, traditional urban rowhouse neighborhoods, while to the east and south, there is Interstate 95 amid sprawling industrial areas. New growth in this area can go either way, transit-oriented urban or auto-oriented sprawl.

What is actually happening is development that attempts to portray an urban image while still being auto-oriented. The proposed Red Line is part of that contradictory illusion. It is what is sometimes referred to as "symbolic transit", an empty but visible trapping to superficially portray urbanity.
But transit is a powerful symbol. That's why the Highlandtown, Brewer's Hill and Canton Crossing folks will all support the Red Line even if it really won't end up doing much for them. Or at least far less than it could have done. The image shown above from the Highlandtown plan can serve as an "iconic image" to promote their proposed development. Visually, it's really everything anyone could ask for - a nice rail transit line on an old freight rail right-of-way going over the existing major street, Eastern Avenue, surrounded by attractive new development. Of the entire 14 miles of the Red Line, this could become Image #1, just as Camden Yards is used to depict the existing light rail line.

East Baltimore's Big Losers: Canton

West of there, the Red Line would turn into Boston Street and Canton. This area has already been fully redeveloped, and Boston Street serves as its attractive but somewhat congested spine. Again, the Red Line would go as fast as it can, which would be too fast but not fast enough. Fitting the Red Line onto Boston Street would be a massive undertaking, requiring cutting it down from two lanes to one in each direction which would make it by far the highest volume-per-lane surface street in the central city area and perhaps the region. Traffic engineering will have to be drastically focused on making both the Red Line and the surrounding traffic flow as continuously as possible.

There are no opportunities here to make the Red Line an iconic centerpiece of the Boston Street corridor, as the Highlandtown folks have ingeniously done. Unfortunately, Canton has to deal with existing realities. The biggest problem physically would be accommodating the huge portal into the expensive tunnel under Fells Point, Downtown and Poppleton.

The solution: Splitting the Red Line

Since the Red Line has been sold as being all things to all people, big and small, fast and slow, transformative and benign, it should be split into two so that it really can fulfill these promises. This will also make it far, far more affordable - which is a particularly acute problem since there is no money to build it.

By splitting the Red Line in two, the shorter end east of downtown can be built as a far less expensive surface streetcar line. This is exactly what the Highlandtown plan shows in their "vision" of rail transit flanking a civilized high density urban street. Similarly, it would fit well on Boston Street in Canton, using the existing street rather than jamming a new rail right-of-way into the median.

A streetcar line would also fit perfectly into Fells Point and Harbor East, on Eastern Avenue and/or Fleet Street, with more and smaller stops conveniently located right along the street next to the shops rather than isolated in unmanned stations 70 feet underground. Alternately, the line could use Eastern and Fleet all the way to Highlandtown, which B'more Mobile has demonstrated would serve a greater ridership than the MTA's fantasy population projections.

Best of all, a streetcar line could run directly and prominently into the Inner Harbor via Piers 5 and 6, instead of isolated far underneath Lombard Street as the Red Line must do. It could then link to the already proposed Charles Street streetcar line for direct connections to the existing Metro and Penn Station, as well as perhaps other future streetcar lines to Federal Hill, Port Covington, Mount Clare and Carroll Park.

A streetcar system connecting all these places is feasible because the average trip length would be short - only several miles. So speed would be far less important than convenience and user-friendliness, which are the two greatest attributes of streetcars.

The Inner Harbor is Baltimore's front yard. Streetcars running through it would be a powerful symbol indeed of the importance of transit.

Upgrading the West Side too

By optimizing the east side of downtown for streetcars, the longer west side can then be optimized for its longer trips, which extend into the suburbs.

The proposed lengthy east side tunnel to Canton is what drags the Red Line down financially. Because it would be so expensive, the rest of the west side Red Line must be built as cheaply as possible. And since the tunnel must be built all at once, everything else must be built at the same time to create the necessary ridership to support it, in one impossible to swallow $2.5 billion gulp.

Getting rid of that tunnel would allow the entire west side Red Line to be built to a far higher standard, either all at once or in manageable affordable segments.

With streetcars serving the Inner Harbor and the Charles Street corridor, the west side Red Line could be built with a far shorter, less expensive and more usable tunnel under Fayette Street which would serve the existing Charles Center and Lexington Market Metro Stations far better and more conveniently than the proposed two block long pedestrian passageway under Light Street.

Alternately, the west side Red Line could be merged into the existing Metro north of Lexington Market, creating connections on the same Metro platforms. This would eliminate the need for all new tunneling in central downtown and allow the Red Line to fully leverage the entire Metro, even if only a small segment of it is built initially - say, to a West MARC station transit hub. 

The overall Red Line plan as described in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (see previous blog articles) is fraught with contradictions and inconsistencies. So it's far better to build less than to build wrong. Its not too late to focus on quality over quantity.

Perhaps what is most desperately needed on the west side is longer station platforms to accommodate longer trains. The MTA Red Line's pathetically inadequate two-car platforms are the penny-pinching result of the excessive east side tunneling. The money saved on less tunneling can be used to provide longer platforms and trains so that west side riders won't have to be packed in like sardines or passed over altogether.

It's all a simple matter of building the right transit line for each part of the system, rather than pretending to make it all things to all people. The Red Line needs to be fast and accommodating for its regionally-oriented west side, and slow and small for its the locally-oriented east side.

February 1, 2013

Ten Sample Red Line Environmental Impact Delusions

10 - The MTA estimates the Red Line travel time from Edmondson Village to Downtown as 16 minutes, while the existing #150 bus takes only 11 minutes.

9 - Red Line ridership projections are based on the premise of over 60% of the region’s population growth (the city and five suburban counties) taking place within the narrow Red Line Corridor, over the thirty year period from 2005 to 2035.


8 - The FEIS report says that at the east end Bayview MARC station, 2923 riders would get on the Red Line throughout the day but only 504 riders would get off - less than one-fifth as many. The daily westbound ridership from the Bayview MARC station to the Bayview medical campus station is given as 277, but the eastbound return volume is given as a grand total of ZERO per day.

7 - However, for the system as a whole, ridership is lopsided in the other direction, with the Red Line projected to carry nearly 3000 more total daily riders eastbound than westbound. The report does not reveal how or why all these riders would forgo the Red Line to make their westbound trips.

6 - The Rosemont station on Edmondson Avenue near Poplar Grove and Franklin Streets is projected to have only 36 daily walk-in riders.

5 - The Inner Harbor station would have a gigantic 9010 boardings per day, but less than 20 percent (1742) would be local walk-in riders from the surrounding Downtown, Inner Harbor and vicinity. The vast majority (6062) would be subway transfers from the Charles Center Metro station to the Red Line via the proposed two block long pedestrian tunnel. As a comparison, the total current ridership at this Metro station is only about 6500 boardings (and 6500 de-boardings) per day.

4 - With the Red Line, Boston Street in Canton is projected to have a peak traffic lane volume of 1575 vehicles per hour. (By comparison, President Street and MLK Boulevard each currently carry less than 900 vehicles per lane in the peak hour and peak direction.) Even with this huge traffic volume, many more vehicles are assumed to be forced to divert off of Boston Street into the communities to the north in order to avoid congestion.

3 - A Red Line train would a maximum seating capacity of 136 riders, with about 200 standees for a total of 336. Even though the Red Line is projected to carry more riders than Metro, the capacity of a Metro train is over four times more - 456 sitting and 996 standing for a total of 1452.

2 - An end-to-end Red Line trip is projected to take 45 minutes to go 14 miles. An end-to-end Metro trip takes 29 minutes to go 15.5 miles. So considering both travel time and rider capacity, the Metro is over six times more efficient in terms of passenger capacity per hour than the Red Line.

1 - Most unbelievable of all: Even though the multi-billion dollar Red Line is currently completely unfunded, the MTA anticipates construction to begin in two years, 2015, and be completed by 2021.