Briefly in the late 1990s, the region's hottest transit proposal was to build a light rail loop surrounding downtown. It even garnered a front page top-of-the-fold full-speed-ahead headline in The Sun. This happened amid growing concerns that the system's downtown segment on Howard Street which opened in 1992 was too far west to serve all downtown adequately. Fast forwarding to the present, downtown has indeed pushed eastward toward Harbor East and away from Howard Street, which light rail has failed to revive. So it's time to revisit this concept. Despite inherent problems, it could still work and get the rail transit system moving.
The northern stub for such a loop was even completed in 1997 to Penn Station. It was always half-hearted, as it dead-ends right into a structural column for the St. Paul Street bridge directly above it, which would have to be adjusted somehow if the loop was ever extended beyond this stub.
The Penn Station stub has proven to be an almost totally useless part of the system. Various operating patterns have been tried over the years to try to make it work, and it has been completely shut down since last year, attributed in response to the Covid pandemic. Aside from some minor confusion, riders have hardly missed it.
Over the years, the region's entire light rail system has been a case of "symbolic transit". The big thirty mile line looks great on paper - from the big Hunt Valley mall and business park on the north to BWI-Marshall Airport and Glen Burnie on the south, with downtown and the Camden Yards stadiums in the middle. There have also been numerous "transit oriented development" projects and proposals, almost all major failures.
Amid all this, the main justification for light rail to Penn Station has been simply to be able to say that light rail serves Penn Station.
Circular reasoning for a light rail loop
In contrast, Miami's Metro-mover is a much larger loop, but it has two tracks to run both ways. What's more, the vehicles are operated so that most of them do not use the entire loop, but instead use the loop to spur off to other portions of the system. The loop does not function primarily as a loop, except to enable riders to transfer from one train to another to use different portions of it.
All these systems are also elevated. Baltimore's surface loop would be slower, but that's merely a challenge to make its other aspects work better.
None of these issues were ever really addressed in the Baltimore process back in the 1990s. Instead, despite the hype, the inherent limitations of the loop format were finally recognized, and the whole loop idea was soon abandoned as the comprehensive regional rail transit study began in 1999.
The 1999 study then led to the 2002 comprehensive rail plan, including the Red Line which then took on a life of its own until finally dying in 2015, taking the rest of the plan down with it. The 2002 plan had circumvented the whole question of downtown distribution by creating redundancy instead, emulating the DC Metro or even the New York subway system. The proposed Red Line paralleled the existing Metro subway downtown within only two blocks, while a proposed Yellow Line paralleled the existing central light rail line all the way from Timonium outside the Beltway to downtown, mostly tunneling underneath streets like York Road and St. Paul Street. All this was highly extravagant, to say the least.
So now in 2021, the process remains stalled at square one. Downtown looks very different from how it did in 1992. To the west, Howard Street is desolate. To the east, a "new downtown" Harbor East has sprung up. So the need for downtown distribution is more important than ever.
To loop or not to loop?
With the eastward downtown shift, the case for a light rail spur from the north leg of the line, through Penn Station and then along the Jones Falls corridor to Harbor East is now stronger than ever. Of course, a spur is not a loop, and the case for a full loop is not as strong, as discussed above.
But is the case for a spur strong enough? And then what happens to the loop concept?
The case for building the spur probably boils down to whether the central light rail line as a whole is important enough to matter, particularly to the north of downtown. Right now, it probably isn't. The city's most recent significant development project in the corridor is "The Woodberry" apartment complex on Cold Spring Lane, and this is hardly even oriented to the light rail station. Just prior to that, a key parcel just north was given over to an electric substation, so the overall net potential has been decreased, not increased.
The 2002 rail plan basically declared the existing north leg of the central light rail line a flop by proposing another line (the Yellow Line) in the nearby adjacent corridor, and things have only gotten worse since then.
Of course, this should be re-evaluated if other major development projects happen. But will they? The track record in Old Town is bad, consisting only of empty promises over the years. Most people consider MagLev high speed rail a long shot, so a Shot Tower/ Old Town MagLev Station as proposed here would be an even longer shot.
So that brings us full circle (so to speak) back to the loop. The best way to make a loop work, particularly a large loop like this one, is to make it not function like a loop. This is the lesson from the Metro-mover in Miami. Instead, make it a series of loop segments that can stand on their own.
If an east spur is built, the loop's missing link would be the south segment along Pratt Street and the Inner Harbor. This would also be the tightest and slowest segment. It would be particularly slow and congestion-inducing if it included turns to link it to the existing light rail line at Pratt Street and the proposed spur at President Street to create the loop. Trains on the existing straight segment of the light rail line can move simultaneously with the parallel Howard Street traffic, but turning trains would require all other traffic in the intersection to stop, which would be a recipe for gridlock.
So the best way to design a Pratt Street segment would be to design it for east-west streetcars, not light rail trains. The east end of this streetcar line could be the upcoming Perkins Point project (as described here) or anywhere between Harbor East and Canton Crossing. The west end of this streetcar line could be Carroll Park (as described below and here) or the Franklin-Mulberry corridor, where it could join a new version of the Red Line (as described here). Or a combination of these.
|Possible streetcar line to Carroll Park and Montgomery Park via the historic B&O Railroad "First Mile" corridor would unify and redevelop the area.|