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.


  1. I'm glad to see after listing out all of your criticisms of the Red Line project, you had a solution in mind. I like it. Where would East (street cars) meet West (light rail)? Illustrate it on a map, if you have the time.

  2. Jpasqualem, I thought maybe people were confused because I've presented TOO MANY solutions. What I'm talking about here is basically the "Low Hanging Fruit Plan" I presented in my 2009 blog entries, including:


    The east streetcar line would join the Charles Street streetcar line in the Inner Harbor and then link to the existing Charles Center Metro station, where the west line would come in either on the existing Metro platforms or a new light rail line under Fayette Street.

    Several other easy possibilities are a streetcar to Metro transfer at an "East MARC" Station at Monument/Highland, or at Central Avenue, shown as Point #4 here:


    The bottom line is that I don't like to push one solution as being the ONLY solution. There are many ways we could could get a better, cheaper, more buildable, more expandable and more efficient solution than the MTA Red Line.

  3. Very beautiful a picture. I like this feeling.

  4. Coming up with multiple solution is always a great idea.