July 18, 2016

Port Covington needs a spine: Mc Cromwell Street

Attempting to relocate the existing Interstate 95 ramps to make Port Covington work is a crazy idea. The recent rejection of the federal grant request reinforces this. The planners need to go back to the drawing board.

The problems are virtually all at the Port Covington ends of the ramps, not at the I-95 ends of the ramps. When I-95 was built, the ramps were designed in a very competent manner, with proper sizes and spacing to handle as much future traffic as the expressway could absorb.

Interstate 95 is the main street of the entire east coast. Messing with it merely to suit a local development would open a major can of worms. (And you thought Chris Christie's New Jersey ramp-gate was bad.)

In light of this, one of my previous blog articles focused on how Hanover Street should be modified and partially eliminated through Port Covington to make its existing ramps work best.

At the same time, a concurrent premise was that Cromwell Street was largely adequate as-is and could simply be tweaked to work as necessary to improve its development and pedestrian environment, as well as its connections to the Hanover Street bridge to the south and its I-95 ramps at McComas Street to the northeast.

But building an entirely new Cromwell Street does have its advantages. It could result in a "cleaner" design and it would get the traffic farther away from the waterfront. The Port Covington plan calls for building virtually an entirely new street system on the site anyway, and even the remaining cost would be far less than the developer's plan, since it would allow much of McComas to be eliminated as well.

The key is to replace Cromwell Street, not eliminate it. The official Sagamore Development Company plan does just the opposite - it replaces Hanover through the site to handle through traffic and eliminates Cromwell's through traffic and ramp connections. Cromwell's baby is thrown out with the bathwater.

A Spine: How Cromwell Street could be relocated to connect seamlessly with the Hanover Street bridge
 to the south (bottom) and the existing McComas Street I-95 ramps to the northeast (top right).

Cromwell Street - not Hanover - is the key

Making whatever is the replacement for Cromwell Street work is the key.

The massive Port Covington project will generate a massive amount of traffic regardless of the street system, simply by virtue of its size. At the same time, through traffic must still be accommodated although some of it will divert simply because it will try to avoid the inevitable conflicts.

Hanover is a much worse street for heavy traffic than Cromwell because of its linkage to South Baltimore's residential areas and its expressway-style ramp merge/diverge conditions, which are very hostile to pedestrians.

The official Sagamore plan, despite spending a huge amount of money to relocate the ramps and lower the road down to grade, still keeps the existing southbound I-95 on-ramp, so it's not really much of an improvement. Hanover Street would also chop the development site in half in a much more severe way than Cromwell would.

The Sagamore Plan: Hanover Street north of the bridge is rebuilt as a wide, lowered boulevard which bisects the site.
Its I-95 on-ramp  is retained, but the other ramps are shoved off beyond the upper left corner of this "bird's eye" graphic,
where they are invisible but would be highly disruptive as traffic filters through the site grid.

The official plan also brings all the new ramps in and out at the extreme northwest (upper left) corner of the site, so all that ramp traffic needs to filter its way from there through the street system to the rest of the site. So that will increase the traffic on Hanover Street, as well as on the west waterfront boulevard (the west side mirror image of  Cromwell) and other streets.

Sagamore's plan presents an illusion of a quiet low-traffic local street grid, but it would really be quite the opposite. And it would get worse when clients for individual sites start planning their massive parking garages, which are inevitable since they have chosen not to locate in the city's downtown core with its maximum transit connections. (So far, there's been no evidence that Sagamore is serious about transit-oriented development, but that's a blog article for another time.)

The best way to accommodate the traffic is simply to focus as much of it as possible on Cromwell Street itself, moving the street as desired so that it works best with the development.

McComas + Cromwell = McCromwell = A spine for Port Covington

McComas Street already connects to ramps to and from I-95. So McComas should be integrated with Cromwell. That would make it "McCromwell Street". Or "McComwell", if you prefer to drop the "r" in deference to the "r"-less McComas.

The existing intersection of Cromwell and McComas at the northeast corner of the site has enough real estate around it to realign the streets in any way necessary to create continuity, so that the ramps will serve Port Covington as much as possible.

At the other end of Cromwell to the south, the kink in Hanover Street at the existing intersection just north of the bridge creates the opportunity to straighten out the road, while aligning the Hanover bridge seamlessly into Cromwell. It would look totally natural, as if it was always aligned this way.

So the relocated Cromwell Street would do a much better job of fulfilling the same purposes that Sagamore has attempted to serve by rebuilding Hanover Street and moving the ramps. It would also better serve the rest of the plan, being in proximity to its largest buildings. Tall and large buildings work best for large streets, making up in density and visibility what they lack in intimacy.

Other beneficial variations are certainly possible. The important point is that a great plan can be achieved without spending a huge fortune on roadway infrastructure, and particularly without tearing down the Interstate 95 ramps.

July 5, 2016

A New Park from Questar Tower to McKeldin Fountain

The 44-story Questar Tower now under construction in the Inner Harbor is an attempt to breathe life into traffic-oppressed Light Street. But so far it looks like a losing battle. The same can be said for the Harborplace renovation slated to start soon across street. Light Street traffic is so nasty that the city had to fence-off its most important crosswalk at Conway Street - a very bad way to introduce arriving tourists to the Inner Harbor.

Now the city and its business allies appear to be willing to try anything - even demolishing the McKeldin Fountain - in what looks more like an exorcism than a renewal plan.

Here's a better solution: Make McKeldin Fountain the centerpiece of a major new park that splits Light Street in half instead of acting as a mere glorified median strip. This park would extend for at least three blocks, virtually free of traffic conflicts, from Pratt Street southward around the fountain, beyond Conway Street to the Questar Tower.

A major new proposed park along Light Street in the Inner Harbor -
from the Questar Tower south of Conway Street (shown at left as a Google Earth mock-up) 
northward to the fountain and Pratt Street (at right).

The case of the Questar Tower

With the massive new Questar Tower, the Inner Harbor will no longer be able to afford the current dysfunctional dangerous intersection next door at Light and Conway Streets.

But the new park plan would reconfigure the streets so that the traffic signals at Conway and Light can be designed to enable all traffic in all directions to stop and start at the same time. When any traffic is stopped, all traffic would be stopped. Pedestrians could then be free to walk unencumbered in all directions - a far cry from the current chaotic condition.

One would think that building the city's tallest-ever residential tower would be such a big story that it would call attention to this. But the Port Covington and Harbor Point plans have dominated recent development news, because they will be major self-contained "cities with in a city", with an image of being sealed-off from traditional urban ills like traffic and human riff-raff. They're selling the new communities, not just the individual buildings.

The Questar Tower doesn't have that luxury.

Harbor Point and Port Covington have made a virtue out of their isolation. This is good for them but not so good for the city, where new development needs to be a tool to revitalize nearby areas - in the case of Questar Tower, the old downtown.

Even within the Inner Harbor, most recent attention has gone to renewing Rash Field, which is significant but removed from the center of things. The long-range Inner Harbor 2.0 plan is to build a huge expensive pedestrian bridge from Rash Field to Pier 6 and Harbor East, diverting the focal point of the Inner Harbor away from downtown permanently.

This diversion process has already been going on for awhile in both the city and public psyche. Most iconic city harbor views such as on TV news and weather reports are now shot outward away from downtown instead of inward at the downtown skyline as they were for most of the 20th century.

Construction to start on 414 Light Street tower
Questar Tower architect's rendering, looking west from the Inner Harbor.
The Oriole Park Warehouse at Camden Yards can be seen in the background at the end of Conway Street.  

The Questar Tower can't sell an idyllic new urban community like Harbor Point or Port Covington. It's one of the last pieces of an old puzzle, on a site that has stood vacant since the old McCormick Spice headquarters was demolished back in the 1980s. At that time, new development seemed imminent, but various plans came and went until Questar picked up the property at a foreclosure auction several years ago. And most people didn't seem to believe their project would really get going until shovels went into the ground just a few weeks ago.

Now the city must make sure it does just become an isolated ivory tower, but will be part of making the entire area more attractive - most notably the old downtown. Harborplace can no longer attract people by itself. The entire west shore of the Inner Harbor must be strong enough to serve as a counter-balancing anchor for the ever-expanding waterfront developments to the east and south.
Looking north at the park from the Questar Tower (left) toward the fountain with Pratt Street at the top.
Plan view of the park. The Harborplace Light Street Pavilion is at the bottom center.

Create the new park by splitting Light Street in two

The key to all this is to tame Light Street and make it into a "people place", an extension of the Inner Harbor which forms a real linkage to the surrounding areas from downtown to Otterbein to Camden Yards. This is impossible with Light Street's existing ten-lane configuration, especially at the intersection with Conway Street at the Questar Tower.

The city had a plan to narrow it down to a "mere" eight-lanes, which they've claimed has been pending a traffic study for many years. That was given as one of the rationalizations for knocking down the McKeldin Fountain, since the alignment would consolidate all these lanes along the street's west side where the fountain is located. But eight fully contiguous traffic lanes would become even more of a barrier between the Inner Harbor and the west side of downtown and the Questar site.

A genuine solution would be to split Light Street into two completely separate streets, with a real park in between instead of a glorified median strip. (Such a plan was first outlined in a Baltimore Brew article I wrote two years ago.)

The west street would serve only the heavy through traffic between Conway and downtown, while the east street would serve the more localized traffic around the Inner Harbor to South Baltimore. Both streets would probably need four lanes, two in each direction, leaving the remaining two lanes to be added to the existing median to create parkland. 

Most of the park, near the Questar Tower and McKeldin Fountain anchors, would be far wider than that.

The single lane that currently turns right along the south curb of Conway to southbound Light Street should also be retained for local circulation. Since it is the only lane that would cross the park, it should be given special pavement treatment and traffic control.

How to surround the fountain

The new park would essentially serve as the Questar Tower's front yard and its linkage to both the Inner Harbor and to the downtown spine along Pratt Street to the north. McKeldin Fountain would be its centerpiece.

Criticism of the fountain by proponents of demolition has focused on how massive and imposing it is. But for a much larger and more sprawling park, this mass would be a key advantage. From the south end of the park near the Questar Tower, the fountain would just look like a distant landmark. Moreover, by opening up the fountain with full 360-degree access, it would no longer be seen as a barrier.

Talented architects can certainly rise to the challenge of figuring out how to design the park to take maximum advantage of this new space and pedestrian access. Additional street crosswalks in the two blocks between Pratt and Conway Street across from Harborplace and the Hyatt Hotel can also be easily provided.

The upcoming long-awaited renovation of Harborplace provides additional opportunities. A significant aspect of the plan is to give its pavilions more "street presence" and de-emphasize the imposing truck loading facilities. The inward oriented marketplace as conceived in the 1970s by The Rouse Company will give way to a more outward orientation. This can work hand-in-hand with the new park plan.

McKeldin Fountain from its landlocked seldom seen backside. 
This would be its view from the south end of the park near the Questar Tower.

Let McKeldin Fountain flow - for water, traffic and people

A death watch seems to be on for the McKeldin Fountain, like Baltimore's muggy summer calm before the storm when water is suspended in mid-air.

The fountain was totally dry this past Fourth of July weekend when the Inner Harbor was supposed to looks its best. The crowds were heavy enough to gather by the fountain anyway, but it just stood there like an inanimate prop.

Water had been flowing through the fountain just a few weeks before when fewer people were paying attention. For at least several years, the Downtown Partnership has been lobbying and raising money for its demolition, saying that the fountain had just about seen its last days due to bad pumps. But it has been working much of the time since then.

Worn out pumps are a very poor excuse to demolish the fountain. And using the fountain as a scapegoat for traffic or design problems is even worse. Its design style has been dubbed "brutalism", which means it was never meant to be subtle or inoffensive. It simply needs the proper setting where water, traffic and people can flow together.

June 20, 2016

Cleveland Cavs avert nightmare flashback to Baltimore

With ten seconds left in last night's final NBA championship game, King LeBron James was fouled. He sprawled on the floor, writhing in pain for what seemed like an eternity - along with eternity for the entire city of Cleveland and its half century reputation as a "loser city", without any championships in any sport.

Why do we subject ourselves to such pain? Why do we wrap our collective municipal psyche so much into our sports teams? Cleveland's reputation for losing has brutally spilled over into all walks of life.

With his Cavs clinging to a thin three point lead, it looked like LeBron had an "out of body experience". And this could have led phantasmagorically all the way... to Baltimore.

LeBron James' "out of body experience" laying on the floor in last night's game
It was looking doubtful that he would get back on his feet to sink his free throws which would seal the Cavaliers' victory. If another player had been chosen to take the free throws, LeBron would have been forced out of the game. To be thrust so suddenly into such a pressure packed situation, LeBron's supporting cast may have missed them, giving the ball back to Golden State, where golden Stephen Curry would have been expected to fulfill the script (see John Elway below) by sinking a three pointer to tie the game. With such dejection and without LeBron in overtime, all odds would have pointed to a Golden State Warriors victory and a continuation of Cleveland sports futility.

The four worst days in Cleveland sports history

LeBron came back to Cleveland specifically to rescue his city from this futility and to bring his hometown a championship. This had to be going through LeBron's subconscious as he laid sprawled on the floor, along with the entire fifty year futility of the city in sports, and indirectly in everything else associated with the city of Cleveland.

When hometown born-and-raised hero LeBron had abandoned Cleveland for Miami, it was the second worst day in the city' sports history.

The worst day was when the perennial football loser Cleveland Browns snuck off to Baltimore to become the Ravens.

In turn, Baltimore felt terrible because they had previously lost their beloved Colts to Indianapolis under very similar circumstances. Baltimore's conscience felt assuaged by assurances from the National Football League that Cleveland would get an expansion team to replace the Browns, and that they could call them the Browns with the same colors and logos, unlike the Colts who continue to haunt Baltimoreans as they play in Indianapolis with their old blue and white Baltimore uniforms with the horseshoe logo. Baltimore has never treated Cleveland with the derision that the other division rival in Pittsburgh has piled up.

The third worst day in Cleveland sports history was "The Fumble" by Browns' Running Back Earnest Byner in the waning moments of the 1988 AFC Championship Game when victory had been all but assured.

The fourth worst day in Cleveland sports history was "The Drive" of 98 yards by Denver Broncos Quarterback John Elway for the winning touchdown to defeat the Browns in the 1987 AFC Championship game.

Both Byner and Elway fit into the Baltimore conspiracy. John Elway dissed the Baltimore Colts when he was America's most highly touted college football recruit, forcing the Colts to let the Denver Broncos have him in an illustrious career that included Super Bowl victories as both a Hall of Fame Quarterback and just this year as the team's General Manager.

Meanwhile, Earnest Byner went with the rest of the Browns to Baltimore, where after quietly playing out the conclusion of his fine career, he was selected as the first player for the "Ravens Ring of Honor" despite all his notable achievements having been made in Cleveland.

Is that a slap in Cleveland's face? Certainly, Baltimoreans don't like the way Indianapolis has dealt with the Colts legacy, particularly toward "Mr. Baltimore Colt" Johnny Unitas.

But the uncontested "Mr. Cleveland Brown" is Jim Brown, whose towering legacy is totally intact in Cleveland.

Ozzie Newsome also fits well as both a penultimate great past player for the Cleveland Browns, and great current General Manager for the Baltimore Ravens. But just as a reminder, he has guided the Ravens to two Super Bowl championships with a team that would have been the Browns.

Pro basketball franchises pack up and move all too often. Baltimore lost the Bullets to Washington. Geez, even Oklahoma City was recently able to steal a franchise.

If LeBron wasn't thinking about this kind of stuff as he laid sprawled on the floor with 10 seconds left in the championship game, even in his inner subconscious, it had to be in the dark recesses of many of the long-suffering Cleveland sports fans who witnessed it.

What remains totally uncontested by everyone is that LeBron James is now the anointed "chosen one" of Cleveland's sports legacy, which sits squarely on his very wide shoulders.

LeBron James slowly returns to the game

So last night, LeBron James slowly got up off the floor.  He dusted out his mental cobwebs to shoot his free throws. He staggered in an apparent daze toward the free throw line.

The first of his two free throws missed badly. Thousands of Cleveland sports fans then had another instantaneous but eternal flash to the last fifty years of sports futility.

LeBron stared again at the basket. He shot again. The ball rattled around the rim, then slowly down and in !!!!!!! The Cavs had an insurmountable four point lead !!!!

And thus their savior LeBron James averted the nightmare scenario of failure and the dreaded downward spiral toward another re-enactment of their sports legacy, including the threat of another exile to a place like Baltimore.

The overwhelming weight was lifted. Cleveland was the champion of the National Basketball Association.

June 13, 2016

Build Westport NOW with a Port Covington land swap

Here's the simplified follow-up to the article I wrote last week for the Baltimore Brew, after which I realized I should tighten my points to defend against the diversions cast about by the critics.

The primary point: The vacant Westport waterfront needs to be developed as soon as possible. Patrick Turner was poised to do this when his project went bankrupt. It was then sold to Kevin Plank, who is now poised to develop the even more massive multi-billion dollar Port Covington site just across the Middle Branch.
Westport waterfront property as seen from the existing light rail station,
with Port Covington in the background across the Middle Branch

While is in both Kevin Plank's and the city's interest that Plank's development company focus most intensely on Port Covington and not have his attention be diverted by Westport, the latter remains very important to the city and the local community.

The city and Plank have crafted a very wide-ranging public-private partnership for Port Covington, including $660 Million in Tax Increment Financing and other support totalling over a billion dollars for this long-term effort. They're in bed together. That's not an aspersion. Just fact.

On the other hand, the Westport development shouldn't have to wait. It's an existing community with real live human residents. But many of its rowhouses have been bought up by speculators who have allowed them to deteriorate while waiting for the new waterfront development money. Other commercial sites along Annapolis Road have also languished for lack of a sufficient market with sufficient disposable income to support them.

Meanwhile, the city has another major new development initiative in the "Gateway" corridor between the Camden Yards stadiums and the Horseshoe Casino. The city has become highly dependent on the casino as a revenue and jobs generator, as well as on the surrounding area as an "entertainment district" to provide a place for mega-bars and other compatible uses away from other neighborhoods.

The success of all these initiatives requires that the new developments be well connected into the city, to reinforce their "urban" identities, but not so close that the negative impacts spill over. That's the main reason people are attracted to the city in the first place. The Horseshoe Casino must promote its urban qualities. It cannot compete directly on this basis with the suburban Maryland Live! Casino in Arundel Mills or the upcoming National Harbor Casino in Prince George's County on their own terms.

Westport needs to project a positive urban image on the casino. Right now, too much of the casino's image is defined by being located along the Russell Street gas/convenience store strip, or in some kind of inner city no man's land, or just a bad image of Baltimore in general.

Proposed casino hotel built as a veneer for its waterfront garage facing a new Middle Branch Parkway,
would create an impressive new "urban face" for the casino - as envisioned by Peter Tocco.

Again, the Gateway development can't wait. The casino competition is already well underway. The city needs Westport to be a southern anchor of this Gateway Corridor.

The proposed agreement between the city and Kevin Plank's Sagamore development company is highly complex. But resolving the status of the Westport property would be a relatively minor inclusion, compared to all the extensive financial and property transactions it will contain.

City acquisition may be the solution

There is uncertainty as to whether the private sector is ready to come in and develop Westport. So the clearest and most direct resolution would be to have the city to acquire the Westport property as part of the extensive Port Covington land swaps.

Once the city acquires the Westport waterfront property, it can do with it whatever is in the best interest of the Westport community, which has remained constructively engaged in the ongoing planning process, as well as in the interests of the city as a whole.

The city can then also construct streets and conduct remediation directly instead of as part of subsequent agreements with developers. The city can also subdivide the properties to encourage more broad based involvement by smaller developers.
Proposed Middle Branch Parkway spine road between Westport (upper left, south) and Camden Yards (lower right, north),
with a new North Westport light rail station in the shadow of Interstate 95. Part of Port Covington is shown at the lower left.
In my view, one of the most important elements of the development of this Gateway corridor is to create a spine road extending from the Camden yards area to Westport to unify, enhance and urbanize the development and waterfront open spaces. Another key is creation of a new light rail station in north Westport near I-95 to provide a convenient transfer point between the Port Covington spur and the line traveling southward to BWI Marshall Airport.

Acquisition of the Westport waterfront would facilitate these projects. It is common when building such major projects for larger land parcels to be acquired, with the leftover land disbursed after that.

In the grand scheme of the massive multi-billion dollar Port Covington development project, resolving the status of the Westport waterfront property would be a relatively small part. Issues about interest from other developers and about how much the land is really worth may seem unclear and daunting, but having the city acquire the land would make them more straightforward.

It should be a relatively simple matter to agree that transferring Westport ownership to the city as a part of the big Port Covington land deal is the best and most direct way to proceed.

May 5, 2016

For next mayor: 7 new plans for 7 Red Line areas

Outgoing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would offer the governor an alternative plan for the Red Line light rail project. Then she changed her mind and said that was the governor's job.

Wrong! The purported purpose of the defunct Red Line was to transform the city. It's up to the city to determine how to transform the city.

Until now, rail transit has done a very bad job of transforming the city. The central light rail line is flanked by boarded up buildings on Howard Street, even decades after completion. When riots broke out last year, one of the first things officials did was close the Metro, as if they didn't know its role. Both the city and transit administration (run by the state) were complicit in this. Meanwhile, portions of the city that are actually growing have not waited for rail transit.

It should be clear: Area plans must come first. That's the city's job, not the state's. This is especially important because the timing of everything is so uncertain. Not all plans are equally alive or dead. The Red Line's fatally flawed downtown tunnel is so dead that rigor-mortis is setting in, while the "Highway to Nowhere" segment is merely in a coma.

SEVEN AREAS, west to east (left to right):
1-Edmondson Village to Rosemont, 2-"Highway to Nowhere", 3-MLK Boulevard, 4-Metro West/Lexington Market
5-Pratt St./Inner Harbor, 6-Southeast Waterfront, 7-Hopkins Health Corridor to Bayview

Red Line planning can be divided into seven city areas, each with a different status and context for how change can take place. A primary reason the Red Line died was because it was an all-at-once project. Area plans were expected to serve the Red Line project, when it should be vice-versa.

To proceed forward, here's a review of where the seven planning areas stand, west to east. (Anyone looking for my proposals can find them everywhere else in this blog.)

1- Edmondson Village Corridor


Along Edmondson Avenue (US 40) and westward into the suburbs, the Red Line plan has no fatal flaws. The basic design work has been completed. There are indeed flaws, many significant but none fatal, so all that's needed are tweaks. The alignment is also amenable to being built in phases to match the fiscal and political conditions.

Various plans for the area, most notably the new Uplands neighborhood, are not contingent or waiting on the Red Line. More housing challenges also await. The neighborhoods are generally attractive, but the housing facing Edmondson Avenue, cheek-by-jowl with its extremely heavy traffic, is deteriorating badly. Cramming in the Red Line would only make this worse. A solution must be found, because this housing is what most people see, and results in a bad community image from passers-by.

2- "Highway to Nowhere"

AREA 2 in red / AREA 3 in green / AREA 4 in mauve.

This desolate and devastated area is a blank canvas. The Red Line design in the highway median is close to completed, but the surrounding area is virtually free of constraints. Tweaks won't help much, like the city's recently announced Fulton Avenue bike loop along the top rim of the highway (The Sun, April 29, page 2). Something much bigger must be done - so big that it needs to dwarf the Red Line plan itself, which would only play a significant but supporting role.

The basic problem with the "Highway to Nowhere" is that it is what Jane Jacobs described as a "border vacuum" - a "no-man's land" that is not amenable to any new growth or development. A mediocre regional rail line like the Red Line would not make it any better or more attractive.

Throughout the long Red Line process, the city was adamant about keeping the "Highway to Nowhere" open, even as they repeatedly closed it for months at a time for various construction activities, without significant adverse impacts. The highway hypocrisy seems endless. Get rid of it!

3- MLK Boulevard Corridor

The Red Line's "Locally Preferred Alternative" - the favored plan resulting from the federal alternatives analysis - was originally supposed to locate the line along Martin Luther King Boulevard, southeast between the "Highway to Nowhere" and downtown. Then the Red Line's engineering phase determined that the portal to the downtown tunnel could not be built along this route, and the alignment was moved to extend the downtown tunnel under Fremont Avenue.

Now that the downtown tunnel is dead, it is a simple matter to move the Red Line alignment back to MLK Boulevard, where it was in the first place.

This would be an impetus to redesign MLK Boulevard in order to re-integrate areas which are now divided between downtown and West Baltimore, most notably the University of Maryland downtown campus and biotech park. MLK Boulevard was originally designed more like a mini-expressway that divides the communities rather than like a classic grand boulevard which unifies them. The University and its medical center lost both of their stations during the Red Line planning process, and this is an opportunity to replace them.

4- Metro West/Lexington Market Area

AREA 3 in green / AREA 4 in mauve / AREA 5 in brown.

The Lexington Market Metro Station was the planned termination point for the west rail line from the 1960s through the 1990s, until the 2002 regional rail plan which originated the Red Line.

The original plans were based on the common assertion that all successful modern urban rail transit systems have a central hub. At first, this was supposed to happen at the Charles Center Metro Station.

Now it increasingly appears that this hub must be at the Lexington Market Metro Station instead. Events since the 1980s have conspired for this. First, the central north-south light rail line was built on Howard Street, only a block away. Then the Red Line was conceived as a disconnected east-west through line instead of west-only. 

In the last two decades, downtown itself has drifted eastward along the waterfront, most notably to the "new downtown" at Harbor East. Then within just the past few months, the Port Covington light rail spur from the central line was announced (after I proposed it). So not only is downtown drifting, it is also dispersing.

The need for a tight efficient downtown rail hub is as important as ever to integrate the transit system, but locating that hub at the center of downtown is no longer very relevant, because there is no longer really a "center of downtown" anymore.

The west side of downtown urgently needs attention. The massive six-square block Metro West office complex formerly occupied by the Social Security Administration is now empty, the "superblock" project has been officially pronounced a failure, and yet another new attempt to arrest the long decline of the Howard/Lexington area has begun.

The Lexington Market Metro Station is only four blocks east of MLK Boulevard. Many alternatives are possible, on the surface or in a short tunnel, terminating or continuing, wherever and whenever.

5- Downtown and Inner Harbor Surface Streets

The Red Line Draft Environmental Impact Statement studied many alternative variations using downtown surface streets. As a group, the cost-effectiveness scores of these alternatives were far better than the "preferred" tunnel plan, which was seemingly chosen only for political reasons that somehow made sense to someone at the time.

The basic surface alignment concept was to use Pratt and Lombard Street between MLK Boulevard and Market Place, then proceed eastward on Piers 5 and 6 in the Inner Harbor to Harbor East. It would be a simple matter to dust off, revive and refine these plans.

What the Red Line plans never really recognized was that such a surface light rail plan could essentially become the core of a streetcar system, which could then be extended in any or all directions. Thus this plan would have value far beyond just serving the Red Line. At the time, the many streetcar advocates were torn between promoting this fact and promoting the underground Red Line plan, which would essentially preclude such a surface plan.

Surface rail transit has many obvious advantages. It is highly visible, it can be integrated into its urban environment and can have more convenient stations.

6- Harbor East to Canton Waterfront

In this area, the Maryland Transit Administration and the city recognized during the Red Line process that a surface rail line built to full light rail standards would have been an unacceptable intrusion on the communities. That led to the dead tunnel plan. But an actual resolution is far simpler: Design the line to streetcar standards (single vehicles in mixed traffic) instead of light rail standards.

Streetcar lines such as this, as well as in other areas such as Charles Street and the Mount Clare Corridor, would use the light rail Red Line as a central trunk, and proceed from there.

As such, it should be studied as part of a comprehensive streetcar system planning process that would pick up where the Red Line leaves off. Various streetcar corridors were compete with each other for priority (such as a North Avenue line recently touted by Republican mayoral nominee Alan Walden).

Careful attention in streetcar planning must be paid to the traffic and street environment of the lines. Streetcars emphasize shorter trips rather than longer regional trips, where there slow speeds are less of an issue. They are also as much of an urban design and community planning solution as they are a transportation solution.

The transportation role of streetcars is very similar to that of circulator buses, which can be easier to implement for the shorter term.

7- Hopkins Health Corridor to Bayview


In the recently completed 2040 regional transportation plan prepared by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the Red Line is gone, but a one-mile extension of the Metro underneath Broadway from Hopkins Hospital to North Avenue remains an active part of the plan.

A Metro extension beyond Hopkins Hospital should indeed be a top priority because the Metro is Baltimore's fastest, highest capacity and highest quality transit line, and urgently needs a viable terminal station which can serve as a feeder hub for the bus system.

But this Broadway Metro extension has three serious fatal flaws: (1) The state already engaged in a full federal environmental impact study process for this line and found it was not even close to being cost-effective, (2) It can't be extended beyond North Avenue, at least not in the even remotely foreseeable future beyond 2040, and (3) It wouldn't connect to the MARC commuter rail system, the plan having been quietly scuttled for a station at Broadway which is in an extremely constrained segment of the Amtrak corridor.

So it's back to the drawing board. A far more promising alignment for a Metro extension beyond Hopkins Hospital would be eastward along the Amtrak corridor, eventually toward Bayview, Dundalk, Middle River and White Marsh.

This area, between the main Hopkins Hospital campus, biotech park, and Hopkins Bayview - where redevelopment is already moving fast - could be dubbed the Hopkins Health Corridor.

In Sum...

That's it. Mix or match. These area plans are the building blocks for a new workable Red Line plan. It could include some or all of Area #1, along with plans for Area #3 or Area #4, with Area #2 serving to link them together. The rest can be weaved in over time.

It's not a matter of one plan versus another. The MTA's Red Line plans can be salvaged in smaller phases. Let's get to work.

April 18, 2016

Howard St. rail tunnel: Engineering beats politics

A recurring theme in this city's transportation history is that politics loudly dominates the discussion, while engineering quietly gets things done. The new plan to enlarge the freight rail tunnel under Howard Street is a perfect example of this.

Engineers have apparently now come up with an efficient and sensible new tunnel modification plan that actually works to end Baltimore's crippling freight bottleneck, instead of merely supporting what the planners and politicians had been promoting.

Previously, engineers said the existing tunnel could not be enlarged. Fortunately, the new study did not accept "no" for an answer. Engineers have now concluded that the existing Howard Street tunnel can indeed be enlarged.

North portal of the Howard Street rail tunnel from the former Mount Royal Station near Dolphin Street -
now part of the Maryland Institute College of Art

The tunnel has been obsolete for decades - too small for double-stack freight containers and deemed unsafe for hazardous cargo. Politicians and planners had devised various multi-billion dollar plans to build completely new rail tunnels miles away to circumvent it, which have come to nothing. Everyone agrees this is a crucial issue to the entire economy of the city and multi-state region.

The initial engineering report lead by the Federal Railroad Administration was completed in 2005 (download here), and proposed completely new freight routes starting at well above a billion dollars (in 2003 dollars). The cost would have certainly escalated dramatically from there.

More recently in the past several years, they had taken to a cheaper "low tech" alternative of creating a truck terminal southwest of the city, where rail cars could be loaded with containers, whereby avoiding the Howard Street tunnel bottleneck.

Site after site was proposed for this truck-rail terminal, each one killed in turn by community opposition. Each proposed site was worse than the previous one, both for their transportation system inefficiencies and their impacts. The earlier suburban sites were allowed to go through the formal environmental review process prior to being killed, while the subsequent city site in Morrell Park had a very weak pretense of actually being viable in the first place

Projects die of their own weight

That's the way political stalemates for major projects usually work, from the proposed city expressway system first planned in the 1950s and 1960s, to the recently deceased light rail Red Line. Various decisions from various political committees and task forces tend to be piled on top of each other like a house of cards, making the plans increasingly ineffective, inefficient and infeasible.

Plans are seldom actually killed by anyone in particular. They just die under their own increasing weight. Somebody is usually credited with the execution, like Senator Mikulski for the expressway system, or Governor Hogan for the Red Line, or the Morrell Park community for the truck-rail terminal, but this is basically just expedient happenstance - someone in the right place at the right time.

If any of these plans had been pronounced dead at a different moment in time, a different killer could have been declared. The Fells Point expressway could have been killed later by a local developer like Ed Hale, Lou Grasmick or John Paterakis. The Red Line could have died under the governorship of Anthony Brown, who would have had just as much trouble finding the money as Hogan, or previous Governor O'Malley for that matter. The truck-rail terminal could have been killed later by its putative operator, CSX Transportation, or earlier by the suburban Elkridge community which had previously rejected its site.

The 1990s MagLev train project is another example that could be cited, allegedly killed by the communities around BWI Airport - as if such a wide-ranging multi-billion project could be killed by mere NIMBYs. That's like surmising that the entire air age could have been killed by residents of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina who protested the Wright Brothers, or the space age could have been killed by the community in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Mere assumptions

The anatomy of these dead projects is such that someone makes a defining assumption that is then accepted as a "given" which eventually leads to its demise.

For the Howard Street freight rail tunnel, it had previously been concluded that the tunnel was too shallow beneath the ground to be enlarged to current standards - that it's structure couldn't support it. Until now, everyone treated that as a given, period. Now, that has been refuted.

The basic problem is that you cannot prove a negative. If engineers say that something can't be done, it simply means they haven't yet figured out how it CAN be done. It should not be an excuse to shut the door on further inquiry. Major projects are seldom if ever that simple.

Of course, sometimes the solution is worse than the problem. Tunneling is notorious for its hidden pitfalls, such as the "Big Bertha" fiasco in Seattle that has delayed the Alaskan Way project by several years and billions of dollars. Still, engineers are the ones who are now in the process of trying to fix their own mess.

With the Red Line, the problems started when what had previously been conceived as a west-side only project from the 1960s through the 1990s became an east-west line in the 2002 plan.

After that, engineering was essentially used a weapon rather than a tool. Politically motivated promoters and planners actually argued that a west-only line was not even feasible. They said the existing Metro tunnel could not be joined by a new tunnel (even though that was the original plan). They said light rail style vehicles could not be used in the Metro tunnel (even though all rail transit vehicles are built to custom specifications). They said the Red Line could not end at the Lexington Market Metro Station because a tail track was needed (even though BWI Airport's light rail terminus does not have a tail track). Then there were endless interpretations of various convoluted federal rules and regulations that allegedly ruled out this or that.

Another example: Various people who don't understand traffic engineering have offered various plans for taming the city's traffic - usually by making congestion worse with various two-way traffic schemes or supposed "traffic calming" measures. But what the city really needs is to get a competent traffic engineer who actually knows what he or she is doing to come in and fix the traffic signal timing. That would do far more to help than all these technology-averse schemes put together.

Don't ask traffic engineers to study only one option. Work with the traffic engineers to explore the entire range of options. Engineering is a tool, not a solution. And don't frame the issues in provocative politically-charged existential terms like "cars versus people".

The city's 1950s traffic engineer, Henry Barnes, is still being blamed for the city's current traffic problems. The needs of the 21st century are far different from the 1950s, so let's move on.

Transportation isn't even the best example of how technology should be used in a positive manner. The latest famous example in the computer world is how a government-sponsored hacker has cracked the Apple IPhone encryption to aid the battle against terrorists, circumventing endless negotiation between the "suits" on both sides of the issue.

There will never be an end to the things which people will say can't be done. These are contentions, not facts, and then they merely degenerate into defining assumptions.

There will always be more issues

Of course, the Howard Street freight tunnel enlargement project is not a done deal. For many activists, safety is the driving issue, not size. They point to the 2001 tunnel fire, contending that hazardous freight should not travel through the city on any route. Or they'll say that the tunnel enlargement will not do enough to retrofit safety into the tunnel.

There is an underlying lack of trust. The city and the CSX railroad have had protracted negotiations to try to overcome this. But such issues were demonstrated yet again last year when the retaining wall gave way between the Charles Village neighborhood and the railroad track, only a mile north of the Howard Street tunnel. That's a location where the track is fully accessible to deal with problems, but the neighborhood was still highly vulnerable. The repair and reconstruction took over a year, and this area will have to be reconstructed yet again for the new tunnel enlargement plan.

Another issue is how rail service would be maintained during the construction. CSX has done such rail traffic diversions in the past for a few days or weeks, but never for the five years this project is anticipated to take. This time period through 2023 could also be concurrent to that for building a new Amtrak tunnel nearby, which also handles some late night freight trains. Above the tunnel, Howard Street itself has been subjected to decades of abuse. Will this project create a major new construction zone headache on a street that has been in a general state of ruin since the light rail tracks were installed there in the early 1990s?

Some planners had even relished the idea that the Howard Street tunnel might no longer be used by freight trains, so it could then be reused for light rail (or in my case, MagLev). This project would kill those ideas.

In any event, finding a way to finally fix the Howard Street tunnel to accommodate modern freight trains is great news, and a triumph for engineers who are too often the whipping boys for those who actually make decisions and policies.

The role of engineering is to figure out how best to do things, not to make excuses for why things can't be done. Politicians always have the last word, but all of us need to be flexible and cognizant of what the engineers can do, and not just lay down assumptions to get in their way.

April 6, 2016

A WestBalt Port Covington for the working class masses

Huge swaths of the city need to be rejuvenated. Let's put the same energy and focus to work on redeveloping these areas as is being devoted to Under Armour's Port Covington.

Huge open-ended areas of West Baltimore can be redeveloped for the common masses using the same guiding principles as upscale Port Covington. This would also apply to West Baltimore's so-far failed mega-projects - State Center and La Cite - and the impending failure to redevelop the vacant Metro West former Social Security Administration site. The notion that Port Covington is a single once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is simply wrong - designed to divert attention away from other parts of the city.

The vacant Metro West tower looks very attractive and ripe for redevelopment in the background
of the Heritage Crossing neighborhood, but the "Highway to Nowhere" is in the way and ruins the linkage.

Here's the basic remedy: Just as in Port Covington, all of Baltimore needs to plan comprehensively for big areas, with particular attention to borders and edges, and with amenities that add overall value.

New Baltimore development has gravitated to the waterfront, not just because people like water, even Baltimore's slimy semi-liquid stuff, but because it's a long continuous and mostly unconflicted open space that can thus make a great promenade. It's also an urban edge, which either becomes a magnet for activity or it becomes a desolate "border vacuum".

The Port Covington plan also calls for huge high-rise buildings next to Interstate 95, which is another urban edge that's not so attractive. But such intense development adjacent to I-95, properly designed, would frame the entire site and prevent the expressway catacombs from being a border vacuum. The plan anticipates that Port Covington as a whole will be desirable enough to add value and thus support such intense development. Hopefully, they're right.

But to the maximum possible extent, development should be driven by overall geographic value and not by subsidies. It's sheer madness the way the Baltimore gives huge decades-long subsidies to its very best locations. If the prime areas get massive subsidies, how can the rest of the city compete?

Port Covington should indeed be expensive and exclusive, although open to all joggers, bicyclists, gawkers and other visitors. Meanwhile, the working class masses should have their own "economy" version of Port Covington.

Port Covington for the masses

Proposed six-mile greenway loop - Color coded segments:
Light Blue: "Highway to Nowhere"; Purple: MLK Boulevard Greenway; Orange: Pigtown Gateway;
Blue: Carroll Park/B&O Railroad "First Mile"; Green: Gwynns Falls Greenway; Red: Amtrak industrial corridor

A great "downscale" version of Port Covington in West Baltimore could be created from the new development associated with my proposal for a six-mile greenway loop. It meets the criteria: It's big. It's continuous. It creates amenities. And it deals with urban edges and fixes border vacuums.

Most importantly, the plan is physically big - big enough to hang all the neighborhoods and all the smaller plans onto it. The actual development projects should be much smaller, unlike the prevailing mega-project mentality where the city is supposed to fire one multi-billion dollar rocket and then stand back for the development explosion.

Development for the "masses" covers a lot of housing markets, from the "bourgeois bohemians" to the wannabe upscale "creative class" to the normal middle and working classes, to the subsidized poor. There needs to be room for everyone here and lots of room for growth without gentriphobia. Planners' social engineering skills can be given a workout in blending in so-called "affordable" housing.

Until now, most West Baltimore planning has focused on very finite development sites at various locations like Sandtown, State Center, Heritage Crossing and the University of Maryland Bio-Park, Some others have languished like La Cite, State Center and the former Social Security Metro West complex.

But the West Baltimore Greenway Loop would be entirely open-ended, even while it is highly defined. It would consist of a very large number of development sites that would be drawn together by a unified planning and marketing effort, but what gets built first should be driven by the market.

Capital projects

Like Port Covington, there would be some major supporting capital projects involved with this. But the most important one would be both very big, but very easy. The city has already done and undone it several times on various occasions, with no significant problems. It just requires setting up some roadblocks.

Priority Project One: Permanently close the "Highway to Nowhere".

Why the powers-that-be have consistently opposed the permanent closure is hard to figure out. During the protracted Red Line planning process, all kinds of crazy ideas were entertained for creating "transit oriented development" and amenities which would somehow have coexisted with the massive highway. One of the strangest was a small jogging loop along the top rim of the highway around Fulton Avenue that would relate to very little. Quite a bit of planning money went into that one. It's probably still on the books but no one seems to talk about it.

Other various projects in a possible priority order could include the following:

2 - B&O Railroad "First Mile" Greenway
3 - Carroll Park Golf Course renewal
4 - Narrowing MLK Boulevard to create a linear park
5 - West light rail Red Line
6 - New replacement West Baltimore MARC commuter rail station

Development Sites

State Center and Poppleton's La Cite are prime examples of mega-projects that have languished for years under convoluted development plans that seem to end up in court more often than not. The lawsuit against State Center was finally thrown out because it wasn't filed in time, but the court took four long years to decide that the plaintiff took too long.

Nothing has happened in the two years since the court ruling either, under either the O'Malley or Hogan governorships. The private developer says they're ready to roll but the ball is still in the state's court.

State Center is served by two rail transit lines but that's apparently not enough. It's adjacent to successful neighborhoods in Bolton Hill, Midtown and Seton Hill, but that's not enough. It's plan includes extending MLK Boulevard into Howard Street, so that it would wrap around the development in a way which would actually isolate it further.

La Cite has similarly languished. It's theme was the wholesale demolition of huge swaths of housing in the middle of the working-class Poppleton neighborhood, which allegedly would create a market for subsidized upscale housing on the cleared blocks because of its proximity to the University of Maryland Bio-Park. Over a decade later, we're still waiting.

But none of this is enough. Only a big trigger like permanently closing the "Highway to Nowhere" would be enough to really get West Baltimore moving.

Once the "Highway to Nowhere" is permanently closed, perhaps the first development project that would become viable would be the extension of the Heritage Crossing neighborhood to the south, combined with the reconnection of Fremont Avenue through the expressway ditch between Franklin and Mulberry Streets. This was actually considered back in the 1990s by Mayor Schmoke's housing commissioner Dan Henson, who is now working for Beatty Development at Harbor Point.

This would set the stage for the urgently needed redevelopment of the vacant 1.1 million square foot Metro West office complex just across MLK Boulevard, owned by the federal government, which is the largest and most critical site in West Baltimore.

Heritage Crossing (background) should be expanded into what is now the dead space of the "Highway to Nowhere",
near Fremont Avenue and MLK Boulevard.

Existing "anchor institutions" need to play a role, the foremost being the University of Maryland which straddles MLK Boulevard. All of the new development needs to accommodate physical and thematic connections to their campus.

In the southern portion of West Baltimore, the Pigtown business district needs to serve a vital role. Pigtown is finally poised to take off, after years and even decades of promise. Pigtown needs a greater association with the University campus along MLK Boulevard, the adjacent fully renovated Barre Circle and Ridgely's Delight neighborhoods, and the B&O Railroad Museum/Mount Clare corridor.

The B&O Railroad Museum and Mount Clare mansion in Carroll Park are the area's world class cultural institutions, which need to play a vital role. The Southwest Partnership plan to build walls between the park, the museum corridor and the Mount Clare neighborhood needs to be scrapped. What were they thinking?

All of his might mean less attention than before on the interior areas of West Baltimore, like Union and Franklin Square, Hollins Market and the West Baltimore Street corridor. Improvements in these areas would certainly be welcome, but they would not promote large-scale change like the outer border areas would. It would be like Port Covington concentrating its attention on some land-locked interior site like the Sun printing plant instead of on the waterfront.

The same can be said for areas that are in the interior of outer areas, like Upton, Lafayette Square, Harlem Park and Sandtown to the north, and outer Pigtown to the south. These areas probably need more "topsoil" than has been forthcoming, from which to grow redevelopment. Sandtown is an illustration of this. The $100 million-plus that has already been spent has not led to better conditions for the economic market. Upton may be the notable exception, since it has a strong historical theme and nearby Bolton and Reservoir Hills and Madison Park on its side. There really is no geographic limitation to the spin-off from such an extensive broad-based renewal effort.

So here is a possible sequential ranking of West Baltimore development sites, focused on the proposed six-mile greenway loop:

1 - Heritage Crossing expansion to the south - Fremont Ave. reconnection.
2 - Metro West (former Social Security) office complex - Pine Street university connection.
3 - Mount Clare, north edge of Carroll Park
4 - Pigtown business district gateway from MLK Boulevard and Barre Circle
5 - Amtrak industrial corridor redevelopment south of Franklin Street
6 - Carroll Park Golf Course reorientation and clubhouse - including Montgomery Park.
7 - MLK Boulevard narrowing for linear university campus park and new development.
8 - B&O Railroad Museum "First Mile" plan
9 - Franklin-Mulberry "highway ditch" redevelopment.
10 - West Baltimore MARC Station redevelopment - with new Amtrak tunnel to Penn Station

Redevelopment of the north edge of Carroll Park and B&O "First Mile" from Mount Street,
looking south toward the Mount Clare Mansion - as conceived by Marc Szarkowski

The Port Covington hype campaign strikes a populist theme: "We will build it. Together." But regardless of whether their brains and our subsidies really creates such a collaboration, "together" is how all planning should be done. As big as Port Covington is, it is hemmed into a finite space by the Middle Branch waterfront and Interstate 95, so it's not really a great geographic catalyst for larger redevelopment, although its better than Harbor Point and Harbor East.

One argument that's been made is that Port Covington is a place of economic hope for a city that needs it. Other than as a rationale for massive subsidies, it should be the other way around. If the city as a whole was an economically healthy development market, it would help Port Covington.

The bottom line is that we need to reinvent and renew the entire city, not just part of it.

March 21, 2016

Bayview Yard: A squandered plan for a MARC station

It's hard to believe this plan for a new East Baltimore MARC commuter rail station is what Johns Hopkins would actually want.

Railroad and transit stations are supposed to be at the central focal point of urban activities. But the proposed Bayview commuter rail station is hidden deep inside Norfolk Southern's freight rail yard, too far away from anything to benefit anyone.

It's all part of Baltimore's perverse pattern of doing everything possible to avoid transit-oriented development. Instead of creating sites for adjacent support development surrounded by access from communities throughout the east and northeast sections of the city, the station would be totally surrounded by freight trains that bang around to load and unload giant containers.

East Baltimore's proposed MARC commuter rail station would be located inside this Norfolk Southern freight yard
 accessible only by an overhead walkway and no regional rail line.
The Hopkins Bayview Research Park is about a half-mile south of here.

Johns Hopkins draws visitors, clients, customers and employees from a huge area from throughout Maryland's most populous corridor and Washington, DC. Hopkins has been doing everything in their considerable power to transform their world-class medical campus in East Baltimore into an "anchor institution" to transform the surrounding area in their image.

The government planners claim they're helping them, but this kind of help is worse than worthless,

The Bayview freight yard MARC Station plan is a vestige of the dead Red Line. The proposed station made little enough sense when it was attached only by an overhead walkway hundreds of feet long to the $3 Billion light rail line. It was also far enough beyond the Hopkins Bayview Research Park to send the line in the opposite direction from its original destination of Dundalk.

The Red Line died last year because even with its exorbitant price tag and poor performance, it didn't connect with Baltimore's "trunk" Metro line which serves the main Hopkins Hospital campus.

De-evolution of the 2002 plan to 2040

The original 2002 regional rail plan which included the Red Line looked innocuous enough when it was shown on its "cartoon" map along with lots of other rail lines and stations which made it look ostensibly like the DC Metro system. But reality has a way of setting in as years turn into decades of failure.

On the 2002 plan there were five new stations along the East Baltimore MARC line between Penn Station and the existing Martin/Middle River Station. That was part of a "mini-MARC" plan that was labeled "priority" in 2002, the same level of urgency given to the Red Line.

Fast forward to 2016. The latest reality is the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's new 2040 Transportation Plan. Those five stations have been whittled down to just the one - at Bayview Yard. Among the four that died was one on Broadway just north of the main Hopkins Hospital campus and their multi-billion dollar EBDI "Eager Park" community redevelopment project.

It was absurd from the outset that a commuter rail station would ever be built at that location, right between the tight Amtrak tunnel which connects to Penn Station to the west and a tight "S" curve to the east. For that matter, it was absurd that Amtrak, owner of the Northeast Corridor tracks, would ever approve five additional local commuter rail stops that would inevitably clog up their highly travelled operations all the way from Washington to Boston.

Doubly ironic is that while the latest 2040 plan reflects the fact that the Red Line to Bayview is dead, it revives the Metro extension north of Hopkins Hospital that the Maryland Transit Administration cancelled a few years ago due to lack of cost-effectiveness.

So the new BMC plan puts a commuter rail station at Bayview where there would be no regional rail service, and puts a regional rail line at Broadway where there would be no commuter rail service. What a pathetic joke!

The utter lack of cost-effectiveness is still plainly evident for all to see. The Metro extension proposed in 2002 was originally supposed to be 17 miles to White Marsh, to be completed by 2014. Then it was cut back to 3 miles to Morgan State University. Now it's only a single mile to be built by 2040 to North Avenue, at a cost of $1,692,000,000 - that's $1.7 Billion for 1.1 mile with two stations, all underground. And any extension beyond North Avenue would also be underground, so it would be just as absurdly expensive. That is the epitome of cost-ineffectiveness!

This BMC plan is just dripping with frustration. The planners lost their the 14 mile $3 billion Red Line, so their apparent revenge is to propose a one-mile $1.7 billion plan by 2040 to replace it. It's a kind of hypothetical sabotage. Shrink fourteen miles to one mile... that'll show 'em!

A simple, effective and far better plan

OK, enough of these childish games. None of us will be children anymore by 2040. Let's develop a plan that actually makes sense.

There's an ideal site for an East Baltimore MARC Station on 20-plus open acres at Edison Highway just north of Monument Street, half way between the Hopkins main campus and Bayview research campus, with excellent access to the surrounding communities throughout east and northeast Baltimore.

It's also located along the ideal corridor for a cost-effective Metro extension that would come up out of the ground at the first opportunity, minimizing the expensive tunneling which killed the Red Line and would even more inevitably kill the Metro extension under Broadway contained in the 2040 plan. Unlike the Red Line, such a Metro extension would be fully integrated into the MARC station, a local bus hub, and transit-oriented development, somewhat like a Baltimore version of the DC Metro's New Carrollton hub, only better.

"Health Corridor" Metro Extension - connecting Hopkins Hospital's main campus with Station East,
 an Edison Highway MARC Station and the Hopkins Bayview campus.

The MARC Station would be just a short hop on the Metro from the main Hopkins Hospital campus, from the Bayview campus and from the new "Station East" community. Just as importantly, all these stations would also be linked to each other.

And since the Metro would be out of the ground it could then be further expanded to White Marsh, Middle River, Essex and Dundalk with no more prohibitively expensive tunneling.

A Hopkins "Health Corridor"

Such a plan would essentially create a new Johns Hopkins "Health Corridor" which extends all the way from the main hospital campus to Bayview. It would be the ultimate completing step to the Hopkins vision for the area surrounding their main campus, but without the destruction and displacement which has already been carried out so painfully and expensively over the past decade.

Site of proposed East MARC Station under Edison Highway, looking west toward Hopkins Hospital campus.
The Station East neighborhood is in the background in front of the tall buildings.

The growth being stimulated by Hopkins already support such a plan. The first new neighborhood initiative beyond EBDI "Eager Park" is already in place - "Station East". This neighborhood just to the east, where newly renovated houses now stand next to where recently stood some of the city's most serious devastation, was named after a station that doesn't even exist yet, and isn't in the BMC 2040 plan.

But the station at "Station East" would easily be provided along an eastern Metro extension. It could be a cost-effective "cut and cover" station built into the tunnel portal instead of buried deep in the ground as the proposed stations under Broadway would have to be. This station would also support the greater Berea area to the north.

This redevelopment has already started in a responsible way, not like the wholesale destruction which occurred north of Hopkins Hospital.

Looking east from MARC Station site under Edison Highway at part of the adjacent large vacant development parcel,
 with Hopkins Bayview Research Park in background. The Metro would go between them.

Just to the east along Edison Highway is where the MARC commuter rail station would be integrated with a Metro station to serve all of northeast Baltimore, northward throughout the Belair Road corridor, as well as southeastward to Highlandtown, Patterson Park and Canton. None of this is accessible at the proposed Bayview freight yard site. A Bayview Yard MARC station site wouldn't even be easily accessible form the Hopkins Bayview Research Park.

On the other hand, the Metro could easily provide a station built into the berm between Bayview and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway (Interstate 895), easily accessible by pedestrians from all of Bayview as well as Greektown. The MARC station, Hopkins Hospital and the rest of the Hopkins Health Corridor, as well as downtown would then be a very short Metro ride from Bayview.

In sum

The BMC 2040 plan wants to spend $1.7 billion for a tiny one-mile Metro extension that doesn't even serve MARC. The plan also creates a MARC station that doesn't even serve the Metro, or much of anything else. Both Johns Hopkins and all the rest of east and northeast Baltimore would be the big losers.

It's time to stamp out such small thinking and create an integrated MARC and Metro plan that actually works.

March 3, 2016

Red and Purple Line partnerships and political football

It's fitting that Joe Flacco signed the richest contract in pro football history on the same day the state of Maryland finalized the biggest contract in its government history - to build the light rail Purple Line. And while nobody is arguing that Flacco is anywhere near the best player or quarterback in the NFL, neither has anyone claimed the Purple Line, whose giant consortium won the $5.6 Billion competition, is more valuable than the Metro transit lines it links in the Washington metropolitan area.

It's all about what needs to be done, how to do it, and who can actually do the job.

The DC area Purple Line left the Baltimore Red Line in the dust, just as the Washington Redskins surpassed the previously mighty Baltimore Ravens last year on the strength of backup quarterback Kirk Cousins, when both teams' highly paid starters, fallen Flacco and fragile Robert Griffin, were left on the sidelines.

While $5.6 Billion is a staggering commitment, it's hard to ascertain just how much money it really is or how it was calculated. The purpose of the public-private partnership is to spread out the risk and acquire the expertise that the state is unable or unwilling to summon on its own. It's sort of like renting instead of owning. The landlord is just more prepared to deal with the property and its complexities which are inherent in a deal as encompassing as this.

But as complex as the Purple Line's 36-year design, finance, construction and operating contract necessarily had to be, it would have been a mere napkin note compared with how complex and convoluted a comparable Red Line public-private partnership would have been.

There's really only one solution: The Red Line must be downsized into a manageable project, to get it going again.

The most important part of the Red Line is economic development, not just transit, as shown in this alteration
 of the MTA Harlem Park station plan to get rid of the adjacent "Highway to Nowhere". (by Marc Szarkowski)

Taking the vertical game underground

The proposed Red Line's huge risk and complexity was mostly in its 3.4 mile Red Line tunnel under downtown Baltimore, which represented roughly half of the total $3 Billion capital cost and two-thirds of the heavy construction cost of the entire project.

But that was just the beginning. The "vertical game" (to stay with football parlance) refers to far more than just whether to try to go underground in a tunnel to get the Red Line through downtown, which Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn rightly called a "fatal flaw" in the project. After all, there are many subways in the world.

But then the Maryland Transit Administration decided it had to award the engineering contracts and begin final design for this tunnel before any kind of public-private partnership was established. The Red Line process had been plodding along for over a decade and the MTA felt the need to just keep plunging forward. They knew that engineering the tunnel would take far longer than any other part of the project, while its construction would have to begin first. If they didn't begin the tunnel's engineering as soon as possible, the entire project would suffer from insurmountable delays, And of course, time is money.

So while the Red Line's timetable was behind the Purple Line's in most respects, it was ahead of the Purple Line's in design. Even now, engineering on the Purple Line still hasn't begun.

This is actually a huge advantage for the Purple Line, enabling its public-private partnership to be defined and negotiated far more cleanly and flexibly. In contrast, Red Line engineering was literally stuck in a hole.

This explains much of the reasoning behind the MTA's now infamous "all or nothing" approach to the Red Line. The tunnel needed its own commitment and timeline as a prerequisite for anything else. So now all that expense is literally buried in the ground. "All or nothing" became nothing.

The only flexibility would have come if an entire piece of the project was jettisoned, when and if money needed to be saved. That probably would have meant chopping off the transit line's east or west ends, which were the segments that actually contributed to the line's ridership in a reasonably cost-effective way.

That is what Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was rightly fearful of. He had been pressured by the state into making a financial commitment to the project with no genuine assurance that the portion of the project in his jurisdiction would actually get built.

It's like football fans who now worry about whether the Ravens can now actually afford to pay for a good defense and offensive line to support the rich Joe Flacco. But offensive lineman, even great ones like Marshall Yanda, cost a lot less than Flacco, so it makes a lot more sense to pay them their due than to cut them just to throw more money at Flacco.

The Red Line tunnel as designed would have been a mandatory and largely inflexible expense. Its only severable element would have been its pedestrian tunnel to connect the Inner Harbor Red Line Station to the Charles Center Metro Station. Red Line supporters claimed that this pedestrian tunnel was crucial, steadfastly defending it to the critics who mocked and criticized it. But should the thousands of projected daily Red Line transfer riders be forced to walk the length of more than TWO football fields to get from one line to the other? Even mighty Joe Flacco never had to do that.

But here's a hint: The extremely detailed 65% complete engineering drawings for the Red Line's tunnel showed only an outline of this pedestrian tunnel. That's expendability. Like a quarterback taking a sack to avoid a fumble.

The blame game

Like pro football, running a transit system is really all about management, and there's where the $3 Billion Red Line was truly unworkable.

The Baltimore Ravens actually originated with the State of Maryland. The state wooed the Browns away from Cleveland (that's nasty!) and built them a new stadium, which the state still owns. But the state has nothing to do with anything else about the Ravens, even how much Joe Flacco is paid.

That's the way it's going to be with the Purple Line too. The $5.6 Billion private partner will fully design, finance, build and operate the line. The buck stops there.

That kind of direct accountability would not have been possible with the Red Line. Besides the cloudy design decisions discussed above, there is the question of actually operating the line after it is completed.

The vehicles would be owned and maintained by the private consortium. But the state MTA would actually run the trains, just as with their other heavy and light rail lines and buses. This is a recipe for perpetual finger-pointing. Whenever a service problem arose, the state would blame the contractor and the contractor would blame the state. The state would try to get the contractor to fix any faults with the vehicles, and the contractor would blame MTA train operators for abusing the vehicles they're responsible for maintaining.

Trains running late could be an even bigger issue in the blame game, and poor "bottom line" ridership would be the ultimate unresolvable issue.

Yes, contract language would attempt to clarify these kinds of things, but that just opens doors for lawyers. The example the MTA has cited is that there would be contract criteria for cleanliness of the vehicles, and if they flunk the "white glove" test, the contractor would forfeit some of the state's money. But gum under the seats is far from being the most serious problem with operating a transit line. Gumming up the motors is a far greater threat.

Horizontal vs. vertical monopoly

This is all part of the question confronted by economists of horizontal vs. vertical monopolies. All transit lines exhibit monopoly characteristics, which means that a free supply/demand market is not possible to regulate or resolve them.

The DC-suburban Purple Line will be a vertical monopoly. All stages of the "supply chain" which delivers transit service will be clearly controlled by the consortium.

Vertical monopolies are strong in that management and production are controlled holistically. The operator follows orders, merely doing what it's mission says it will do. Any influence from politicians, workers, riders, etc. can be processed by the entire system. Of course, pure vertical monopolies are rare. (It would be like the National Football League owning college football.)

On the other hand, Baltimore's mass transit system is a horizontal monopoly, which means it is vulnerable to impacts on all flanks from all forces and institutions. The transit operators union has its say. The various jurisdictions have their say. The state legislature has its say, etc.

A horizontal monopoly is always in a state of flux. The latest is a proposed "scoring system" by the Maryland legislature to determine which transportation projects get built. President Obama already implemented something of that sort when he had the Federal Transit Administration incorporate community impact factors into its selection criteria for transit project funding.

Then there is the effect of separate local transit systems. The DC metropolitan area is far ahead of Baltimore in this, but Baltimore is catching up. The city now has its Charm City Circulator system which affects the MTA tremendously, although they haven't admitted it. The Uber-style cyber-taxi system is becoming a huge factor in transit and perhaps Zipcar renting will as well.

Bottom line: Downsize the Red Line

The hype called the Red Line a "game changer". But the truth is that the game is always changing faster than we realize until after the fact. A single poorly designed rail transit line is but one cog in the wheel of change.

The biggest question in any public-private partnership is: What happens if it fails? In the vertical monopoly Purple Line, it's the relatively simple matter of finding a way to adjust the game to achieve the desired results. That customarily means shoveling more money at the problem, but at least it's do-able.

The Baltimore MTA has been shoveling money at its problems for decades, with a spectacular lack of success. All kinds of solutions have been proposed, as if some knight in shining armour such as moving to an all-powerful regional authority could fix the problems. But it just doesn't work that way.

The goals are nebulous enough as it is. What Baltimore really wants is to make transit a potent economic development tool. How do we measure that?

There is really only one feasible direction we can go. The Red Line must be downsized and refocused into the smallest feasible project which is capable of moving the city and region toward its goals, while accommodating future expandability to continue expanding those goals.

At the very least, that means building a Red Line which emphasizes linkage with the rest of the transit system and with community development. That means getting rid of the 3.4 mile downtown tunnel.

It means a clearer and more straightforward public-private partnership. It probably means getting rid of the local government funding shares, which was so unpopular it devolved into smoke and mirrors. Local money should be directed instead to related station-area community projects.

This certainly means the Red Line won't be built immediately (we already knew that) so the preparation of the line's corridor for the future can and should proceed first. That could mean getting rid of the "Highway to Nowhere" and creating a viable corridor development plan which includes the re-use of the massive Metro West former Social Security complex.

A multi-billion dollar public-private transit partnership is complex, but redeveloping a city is far more important and rewarding.