August 2, 2007

Regional Transportation Plan


That is not a rhetorical question. There really is a simple answer.

It is not simply political inertia and bureaucratic bungling. Or political bungling and bureaucratic inertia, even if there are large measures of all that in the process.

But there can be no denying that the new plan prepared by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council is a total stiff for anyone who believes that Baltimore City needs to be the heart and soul around which the region's future growth takes place.

The following are the significant transportation projects in the City Baltimore which are listed in the plan to be built over the next 30 years:

First, there is a portion of the transit Red Line between Woodlawn and Patterson Park. Then there is an East Baltimore MARC commuter rail station, currently envisioned to be north of either Hopkins Bayview Medical Campus or the Hopkins Biotech Park, with no regional rail transit connections in the plan at either location.

There are five city road projects in the plan: 1-Boston Street railroad overpass (to eliminate freight train conflicts), 2-Keith Avenue/Broening Highway interchange (serving the General Motors site), 3-Upgrading the JFX/Northern Parkway interchange, 4-Widening the Baltimore Washington Parkway with new ramps (to support the Westport project), and 5-A new highway connection from MLK Boulevard to the Jones Falls Expressway (from Howard Street through the University of Baltimore Bolton Yard parcel?)

There are also short pieces of two hike-bike trails into west Baltimore, one at Caton-Loudon and the other along the Gwynns Falls.

That's it. That is the entire sum total of what is in store for the city over the next 30 years. (Obviously, these people don't pay attention to my blog.)

The plan can be downloaded from


The reason the regional plan is so pathetic is very simple: There is a federal requirement that all regional metropolitan plans must be based on real actual funding projections. Regional plans must not be mere "wish lists".

This is actually a good rule. It requires that regions actually set priorities and not simply produce a bloated list of everything that everyone wants. It is also good because it lays out the real intent of the regional leaders as clearly and starkly as possible, allowing readers to see beyond any flowery rhetoric.

But real financial constraints can be a real downer. This is especially true for transit. The plan must account not only for the potentially huge cost of transit construction, especially for tunnels, but the plan also needs to consider operating costs as well. Operating costs are an ongoing year-after-year expense which eats into the potential budget for capital construction of new transit lines.

Transit's dwindling farebox recovery rate is a major issue. The MTA used to recover 50% of its operating costs from the farebox, and that is now down to about 40%, and if the region was going to make an honest projection, it would probably be projected to go even lower over the next 30 years.

Transit operating deficits are such a major issue that it is questionable as to whether the region could even AFFORD to gain a significant increase of the region's trips via transit. As it stands, the regional projection is that the percentage of trips by transit is anticipated to stay the same over the next three decades. No progress at all.

Such is not a great aspiring vision for the future of the Baltimore Region. The plan projects that peak period congestion will increase over 30 years by 258%, using the technical definition based on the region's travel simulation computer model. And that projection is in spite of the overwhelming share of the capital budget going for expansion of the suburban highway system rather than for transit.

So here is the trap the region is in: More and wider highways can't solve our congestion problems and we can't afford the kind of transit that requires huge subsidies and doesn't go where the new jobs and development are anyway.


We normally think of great urban plans as being sweeping visions by men such as Daniel Burnham (Chicago) or Pierre L'Enfant (Washington, DC) or Frederick Olmstead (all over the place). Maybe that kind of planning can still be done. I know I've given it my best shot, and others have too. But Burnham and his ilk did not have to deal with 21st century political and fiscal realities.

What we need now is a plan that responds to the current cold heartless bureaucratic rules of metropolitan plan making. Here are the steps:

1- EMBRACE EXPRESS TOLL LANES NOW - The State has already made a billion dollar commitment on Interstate 95, but what is really needed is not a futile excuse to build more and bigger roads. What is needed is a way to manage our limited transportation resources. Congestion pricing must be applied when and where we have congestion, which is NOW on EXISTING HIGHWAYS, not after the construction ordeal is completed. We need to apply variable electronic tolls on existing highway lanes, in order to adjust traffic demand to maintain the highest possible flow rate (clogged roads carry LESS traffic, not more) and to shift excess demand to off-peak times and to transit and carpools. This will increase the ability of our EXISTING transportation system to actually carry PEOPLE, not clogged cars.

To deal with the political fallout, the State should pledge that a certain amount of the revenue will be returned to the local jurisdictions to fulfill any desired local need, including tax relief, so that motorists will realize that this is not just a excuse for the State to make money.

2- INCLUDE MAGLEV IN THE 30 YEAR YEAR PLAN - Maybe you might think that a transit line based on magnetic levitation is just pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but the Maryland Transit Administration has already done a detailed study that says that it can actually pay for itself and attract rich private sector investors, unlike every other form of transit we have. Even if you don't believe it, future technological advancement should be plugged into the equation of the 30 year plan. Could anyone 30 years ago have imagined the kind of digital technology revolution we would be experiencing now? Technology is the great wildcard of the future and no one should deny that it can bring great changes. The long range plan should not simply assume that there will be no major technological advancements in the next 30 years. If we don't plan for future change, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The same MagLev assumptions that were justifiable in the MTA's report are justifiable in the 30 year long range plan, but the long range plan should have a wider vision. There is no reason in theory why MagLev could not provide the same advantages on an 8 minute trip from Towson or Columbia to Downtown Baltimore as it can provide for an 18 minute trip from Downtown Baltimore to Washington DC. The region is expanding to include both, and MagLev, in concept at least if not technological execution, can provide an appropriate and exciting future scenario to reflect this.

3- EMPHASIZE LOCAL TRANSIT TO EXPAND RIDERSHIP AND REDUCE DEFICITS - The current "business model" of the MTA transit system has doomed them to losing large amounts of money. The MTA charges the same fare for expensive long trips as for short ones, and short trips are the ones least likely to be captured because of poor transit reliability and long wait times relative to trip times. What is needed is really good local transit, but not the meandering loops of "shuttle bugs" like in Mondawmin and Hampden which have very poor farebox recovery rates because they combine the disadvantages of short distance and long distance transit.

A streetcar system could be an example of how a really high quality short-distance transit system in high density transit-friendly areas could be built on a "clean slate" from the ground up, which would justify reasonably high fares for short trips. Such a network would not cost an inordinate amount of money to build and would unlock the greatest untapped transit market available.

4- REALLY TRULY RESTRUCTURE THE MTA TRANSIT SYSTEM - The operative word is STRUCTURE. Every change should be integral to the entire system to minimize redundancy and maximize clarity. Comprehensive transit hubs should be established to ensure that anyone can get from any one place to any other place in the entire system.

5 - REGIONAL RAIL SHOULD BE A BACKBONE, NOT A CIRCULATION SYSTEM - It is absurd for the Red Line to end anywhere near Patterson Park. The purpose of regional rail transit must be to haul huge numbers of people on the highest density trunk of the network. That can't be done to a quiet residential and park area with no geographic setting for a large transit feeder hub. It is particularly absurd since there is no place near Patterson Park for a fast reasonable cost surface transit alignment. The function of regional rail transit is extremely important, but it is limited to the highest volume, highest connectivity corridors. Longer distance suburban trips should take place by buses, MARC Commuter Rail and eventually perhaps by MagLev, while shorter trips should be by feeder buses, shuttles run by institutions and perhaps by streetcars.

Following these concepts, the long range plan could be converted into a plan that could radically change the transportation complexion of the region. What's more, the system would stack up well by the rules and scoring system that are already in place for the evaluation of regional transportation projects. We could beat the mindless status quo at its own game.

1 comment:

  1. EMBRACE EXPRESS TOLL LANES NOW - The State has already made a billion dollar commitment on Interstate 95, but what is really needed is not a futile excuse to build more and bigger roads.

    Couldn't agree with you more - express lanes with tolls waived for 2 or more people per vehicle.
    Rachel, Baltimore