September 6, 2007

Inner Harbor Red Line Transit Terminal


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The Red Line should be built in such a way that it transforms Baltimore's odd collection of fragmented rail transit lines into a true system. The Red Line needs to intimately connect to both the surface light rail line and the underground Metro line, and it needs to do it in a way that is visible and cannot be ignored. The Red Line needs to dominate the streetscape and penetrate the psyches of as many people as possible.

So the downtown Red Line needs to be underground with an intimate congestion-free connection to the existing Metro subway. But it also needs to be above ground, so that it can connect to the existing light rail line, achieve maximum visibility, and not cost a fortune. And it needs to do all this without getting mired in traffic congestion.

The Red Line as proposed in the 2002 transit plan fails on all counts. If it is built underground, it will still be at least a block or two away from the existing subway, it will be just as invisible, and it will probably be horribly expensive. If it is a surface line, it will not connect to the existing subway and will be mired in congestion. No one is even considering an elevated line, because it would be presumably unspeakably ugly.

Believe it or not, there is a way to design the Red Line to achieve all the advantages of both a surface and an underground alignment.

The advantage of surface transit in being seen should not be underestimated. It allows transit to become an integral part of the streetscape, and thus an integral part of urban activity and travel patterns. Underground transit is out of sight, and thus out of mind. Elevated transit may be visible, but it can be hard to get to, requiring escalators and all that. Surface transit can become ingrained in the urban fabric.

Planners have gradually, and sometimes painfully, learned how crucial the dynamics of street activity are to urban success. Planners in Baltimore have made the whole gamut of mistakes. They've built elaborate elevated walkway networks in Charles Center that weren't used and had to be dismantled. And even where they were used, they simply sucked the life off the street where it is badly needed. Planners have also built and unbuilt pedestrian malls such as on Lexington Street, creating artificial car-free zones. They've done and undone the same thing on a transit mall on Howard Street, which relegated transit activity into its own segregated zone where car users were able to ignore them, and thus ignore and abandon the entire retail district.

Now the planners' pendulum has swung into an overreaction to the other extreme. Planners who once railed against the automobile as the root of all urban ills have lauded the proposed widening of Pratt Street into a huge auto-dominated boulevard. Some actually say that congestion caused by clogged traffic can be a good thing, because it creates "vitality". They say that a huge asphalt Pratt Boulevard would evoke the Champs Elysees, but it would really evoke Detroit (pronounce it: De-twah, s'il vous plait).

Conclusion: What Baltimore REALLY needs is a rail transit system that has all the advantages of an environment with a minimum of traffic conflicts and a maximum of connections, but is still right there in the center spotlight of the urban stage where no one can avoid it, where it becomes an irresistible vehicle for urban mobility.


Downtown Baltimore has one street that is so excessively wide that cars cannot possibly need all of it, is so fully visible that almost everyone knows about it, and yet is so conflict-free that it has only one major intersection along a length of nearly half a mile. This is the perfect location for a Rail Transit Terminal for the Red Line.

The street is Light Street, between Pratt Street and Key Highway, immediately adjacent to the west shore of the Inner Harbor, the foremost icon and "people place" in the entire region. This segment of Light Street is ten lanes wide, but with only one major intervening intersection at Conway. It is currently utterly dysfunctional - Harborplace, the Science Center and the rest of the Inner Harbor totally turn their backs to it.

Between Pratt and Key Highway (shown here at Conway) is one of the most visible yet most oppressive environments in the entire city - the perfect place for a makeover to bring the entire regional rail transit system together so that it must be reckoned with.

Light Street is the perfect place to bring as much of the entire regional transit system as possible together to create an integrated whole. At the same time, it begs to be made into a people place, to be integrated with the west shore of the Inner Harbor which is regularly populated by thousands of touristas, oglers, scenesters and normal people too.

Part of the excessive width of Light Street should be devoted to the Red Line, in plain sight of the Inner Harbor. There should be a tunnel portal at the north end just south of Pratt Street, so the Red Line can then proceed underground north of Pratt to tie into the existing Charles Center subway station underneath Baltimore Street. North of that station, it should turn westward underneath Saratoga Street and tie into the existing Lexington Market subway station, with a new escalator portal at the intersection of Howard and Saratoga to connect to the light rail line. The Red Line should then come back out of the ground in the Franklin-Mulberry corridor west of MLK Boulevard.

Thus, the Red Line would be exposed to the world and the blue sky in all its flesh-and-blood glory on Light Street in the Inner Harbor between Pratt Street and Key Highway. And yet it would be underground away from downtown traffic as necessary to create intimate right angle connections to the existing subway line.

This Inner Harbor Rail Transit Terminal on Light Street would then become a perfect place to create intimate cheek-by-jowl connections between the Red Line and a streetcar system, including the proposed Charles Street line, the oughta-be proposed Fells Point streetcar line, and perhaps streetcars to Montgomery Park and Port Covington as well. All these lines could share the same platforms and probably even share the same tracks.

Light Street could also have a seamless connection to the existing light rail system. Another tunnel portal could be built at the south end of the Inner Harbor Rail Transit Terminal at Key Highway. The Red Line could then proceed underneath Light Street south of Key Highway, swing under Henrietta Street and come back out of the ground three blocks west at the Hamburg Street/Ravens Stadium light rail station.

Thus, the Red Line could extend all the way to BWI-M Airport and Glen Burnie, avoiding the nasty light rail bottlenecks on the surface of Howard Street. The existing south light rail line thus could actually be made into a real full-fledged regional rail line connecting with a minimum of conflicts to the Inner Harbor and the rest of the regional rail system.

Many years ago, the MTA tried to plan an Inner Harbor transit hub in this same location along Light Street, but got shot down by a pervasive case of bus bigotry. (You know: buses are smelly, declasse, etc.) Now here is an opportunity to do it the right way - redesigning the street from the ground up around the feel-good image of RAIL transit. The difference between rail and bus transit is like the difference between a Yugo and a Mercedes. They'll both get you from Point A to B, but you'd like to have one of them in your driveway alot more than the other.

Rebuilding Light Street also presents some long overdue design opportunities. All ten lanes of Light Street are absolutely NOT needed for traffic flow. And there is only one conflicting intersection to speak of, at Conway Street, to prevent the efficient flow of transit vehicles and pedestrians. This can easily be resolved by good design.

The intersection of Light and Conway is currently a hell-hole for pedestrians, who have been banned from the more popular but dangerous north leg across Light Street. The problem is that this banishment leaves the south leg of the same intersection as the ONLY place for pedestrians to cross for four long blocks. Obnoxious barrier median strips prevent crossing anywhere else.

The solution to the Conway pedestrian crossing problem is simply to create more pedestrian crossings along Light Street. Almost anywhere else would be a safer and less disruptive location for pedestrians than where they previously crossed.

The tunnel portals at either end of Light Street, at Pratt and Key Highway could be special opportunities for creative design, integrating form with function. Both of these intersections are also badly in need of pedestrian-friendly makeovers.Light Street simply cries out to be brought into the Inner Harbor environment. And transit needs to be brought into the mainstream.

In sum, an Inner Harbor Red Line Transit Terminal, in plain sight on the surface of Light Street, would be the single element that would make Downtown Baltimore a transit and pedestrian dominated environment. And it could be built without burying a fortune underground, and without creating a congestion stalemate between transit and traffic.


  1. Dang ... a rail line that dropped visitors coming in from BWI at the visitors center in the Inner Harbor? Sorry, mate: you're making way to much sense here.

    Seriously: this is cool. Still haven't been able to wrap my head around the Chas. St. trolley, though. Seems like for it to happen, something's going to have to give: curbside parking, the street's role as a major route outa downtown for cars ... something.

    Which means someone's gonna be real ticked off ...

  2. Jamie, the Charles Street trolley would basically follow the same path up Charles Street as the existing buses, mixed right in with the automobile traffic, which makes it no better or worse than the buses. All the same measures that OUGHT to be taken to improve bus speeds and reliability can and should be done to help the trollies.

    That mostly means traffic signal priority for transit, which the city has thus far been unwilling to do. Moreover, on-street parking could actually HELP transit operations if the bus stops are expanded onto curbs that extend outward into the parking lanes. It also remains to be seen whether the City government will ever be willing to do this either.

    Several years ago, the City wanted to make Charles two-way, which would have made it practically impossible to extend the curbs at the bus stops or to provide full-time parking. It seems that the City has come to its senses and quietly scuttled that idea. This is in spite of the general feeling of urban designers that two-way streets are imperative - even if they must sacrifice on-street parking, reduce space at bus stops, make bus movement more difficult, increase congestion and increase pedestrian conflicts.

    On the other hand, my scheme for the Red Line, which calls for a tunnel between Pratt and Saratoga Street, could be the beginning of an underground Charles Street transit line that could extend north from there. Then we wouldn't need a trolley.

    Such a scheme is actually very similar to the Yellow Line alignment in the 2002 MTA plan, except the MTA alignment is probably unworkable because it has to somehow get from the Camden MARC Station to the Inner Harbor and then up to Charles Center, and has been shelved by the politicians at the BMC until beyond the year 2035 anyway.

  3. Red Line to Airport:

    I like the idea of the Red Line to the airport, but unless are you envisioning it as being at least partially grade separated or express from the western edge of the Route 40 "expressway" to Woodlawn? Otherwise, it seems like you're only exchanging one "white snail" --the current one-- for another. Also, why does the "Blue" line end at M&T Bank Stadium? Wouldn't trains still have to continue south towards the nearest interlocking anyway, to clear the track for the next train? Or is there an interlocking on that bridge?

    It seems like you may as well just build another stub track or two at BWI (if there's any space), terminate both services there, and run both as skip-stop from Camden Yards to BWI. Some Blue line trains could skip all stops from North Avenue to Lexington Market or Convention Center as well, to increase speed from the northern suburbs to Downtown generally and the Pratt Street line and BWI Airport, specifically.

    Maybe the line from Penn Station, depending on ridership, could be operated as a "super express", stopping only at Camden Yards, before heading to BWI.

    Also, I've heard several times that Charles Center was built to accomodate a north-south line, but was Lexington Market station built to do the same?

    Central Harbor Point Streetcar Line:

    Is this line underground? If it is, how far north does it extend underground?

    Green Line to Canton:

    Is this Green line under or above ground? If it's above, is it a Light Rail/Trolley line? Cross-platform transfer from the heavy green line, if so? Does it use tracks next to the NEC main line? Are you proposing at least one multimodal station there?

    Other questions:

    Do you have any ideas for possible service to Towson? I liked the 2002 report idea of service to "Beltway North", because passing through Towson and Towson U and the expanded Towson Town Center, might generate some good ridership numbers with Towson and Towson U growing. Plus, the town itself recognizes the need to better manage auto usage in the area.

    Also, 33rd Street is another very wide street that could seemingly accomodate Light Rail/Streetcar/Trolley service easily. Any ideas for possible service on 33rd?

  4. Thanks for the comments, Chris. Sounds like you've really thought these things out. Here are my responses, as much as I've been able to draw any firm conclusions:

    Red Line to Woodlawn - Yes, I'm also very concerned that the MTA is going to come up with some kind of slow crummy snail-like plan west of the Franklin-Mulbery trench along Route 40. There is no room on Route 40 to really do it right. We shall see. It might be best to temporarily end the line at the West MARC Station until we have enough money and commitment to transit to really do it right, which would probably require something really major.

    Blue Line south of Ravens Stadium -Yes, you are right. I should have shown the Blue Line overlapping the Red Line south of Ravens Stadium, even if there is an interlocking. Beyond that, your ideas sound good but there are many possibilities. I'll change my map.

    Expanding Downtown Metro Stations -If any provisions were originally made for future expansion of any Metro stations, they are certainly modest (such as "knock out" panels) compared with the additional expenditures that would have to be made. But connecting everything to the Metro and light rail MUST be a high priority !!!

    Streetcar Lines - None of my streetcar lines are underground. I'm using the word "street" literally - on the STREET. They are meant to be convenient, visible, and easy to build, not fast.

    Light Rail to Towson - Yes, there should be a light rail spur to Towson along the Beltway. I'll put it on my map. It will probably be more useful for trips to/from Hunt Valley than downtown, and probably not until there is much more development such as infilling all the Hunt Valley surface parking lots and the fairgrounds, but it should happen someday. The BIG future Towson connection I see should be MagLev (see my blog article).

    East Green Line - I've written a lot about this in my blog. It would be an extension of the heavy rail Metro beyond Hopkins Hospital, and would come out of the ground near Hopkins in the vicinity of Chester Street along side the Amtrak/NEC tracks, just north of Eager Street. It would have a MAJOR New Carrollton-style transit hub at a new East Baltimore MARC station, which I would locate on the huge vacant lot near Edison Highway. This needs to be done SOON.

    33rd Street - Yes, a streetcar line here would be an interesting option between the Charles Street streetcar line and the Morgan State streetcar line. I'd show it on my map but I can't show every option. Streetcars are certainly a more reasonable option in this area than the heavy rail Metro extension overkill in the 2002 MTA plan. The MTA's heavy rail subway and/or elevated line to Morgan State (much less White Marsh) would have costs and impacts that far outweigh ridership, and surface heavy rail is totally infeasible here.

  5. Gerald, you're welcome for the comments. I'm enjoying the dialogue.

    Red/Blue Lines:

    Ending at the West Baltimore station sounds like a good interim plan, since MTA isn't interested in putting the line underground (not that they seem to me, to be that much interested in anything beyond the status quo). I kinda like the pictures I saw that had part of the line underground, with a portal somewhere in the middle of Edmondson Ave. (which, near Athol Ave., is -very- wide). But now certainly doesn't seem like the climate in which one can seriously propose that without alot of political will behind them.

    Southward, there certainly are alot of possibilities. I like extending to Arundel Mills and/or all the way out to Columbia. Arundel Mills might be politically impossible and Columbia doesn't seem to really know if they want to be connected to MTA, WMATA, or both. But I do like a connection to those places, with transfer points to nearby MARC stations. I wish the BWI station had been routed differently, so that the current line could be pass-through instead of a terminus.

    BTW, if you have the Red Line entering a tunnel just south of Pratt Street, how can the Pratt Street line share tracks and offer a transfer?

    Downtown Metro Stations:

    I agree that tying everything together is the top priority.

    You know, now that I think about it, I remember there being an idea floated a while ago about burying the JFX and extending President Street northward. How serious was that?

    Did you or anybody else float any ideas about having transit along that segment, since it passed near to Penn Station? A line buried with the JFX could leave Penn Station, connect with Shot Tower Metro station and continue eastward. Or a surface LR/trolley line could run be built down the middle of President Street (and the emergent JFX), going up to terminate at Penn Station where the current LR line is located possibly.

    Towson Light Rail:

    I'm anxious to see what your next map looks like, concerning the Light Rail.

    I read your entry about the Towson maglev. I love the idea of Maglev, but correct me if I'm wrong, but the trains would not be able to achieve the high speeds --which is the main reason to build Maglev instead of conventional fixed, HSR-- before having to stop again, if they're stopping in the Baltimore area (at Camden Yards, maybe?).

    Green Line:

    I just read your Green Line article too, and I fully support it. I've thought for a long while that MARC could become more effective if it began to more resemble SEPTA and NJT, with more stations (albeit with trains skipping some stations along the way), and in the case of Baltimore, more transfer/multimodal stations. So I certainly support your idea. And though I would like to see heavy rail in Northeast Baltimore, the development is being concentrated in the areas where your Green Line is envisioned to go, and as you said, the numbers don't add up for heavy rail in the area.

  6. Some good ideas in here -- but I wonder about the surface stop on Light Street. Doesn't that just cut off that area west of Light Street even further from the waterfront? Also, is the red line supposed to be heavy rail like the green line? If so, you'll need a third rail to power it. That presents some problems because people will want to jaywalk across the tracks to get to the harborfront, which will put them in danger of getting zapped. So they'd probably need to build a fence to keep people out, which just walls that area off even further from the water.

  7. No, David, the Red Line will be light rail, not heavy rail. Light rail has one crucial advantage over heavy rail - flexibility to adapt to any environment. Light rail can be as unencumbered by conflicts as heavy rail if the environment allows it, but light rail can also be fully integrated into the streetscape (no fences, no electric third rail to zap you) allowing full jaywalking privileges, which in B'more seems to be a constitutional civil right. So a light rail Red Line in the bed of Light Street in the Inner Harbor is the best of both worlds.

    Chris, any streetcar tracks on Pratt Street can easily turn into Light Street to allow full integration between the streetcar system and the Red Line as well.

    Chris, this is not to say that light rail should always be on the streets. Light rail in the middle of President Street would be a disaster, with complex intersections almost every block with heavy congestion and turning movements. So knocking down the JFX to extend President Street northward with light rail in the median would be a terrible idea.

  8. Sorry I'm writing so darn much here, but I should mention that there is one situation where the Red Line would absolutely warrant being heavy rail - not light rail. The Red Line should be heavy rail if it is deemed feasible to tie it into the existing Metro subway. This was indeed proposed in several of the many regional rail plans back in the '60s and '70s, and the MTA has never explained to my satisfaction why it should not or cannot be done.

    I would envision a "T" intersection (or "wye") between the existing subway and the Red Line just north of the Lexington Market subway station. This would allow full integration of the Red and Green Lines and require no more subway digging downtown between Lexington Market and Hopkins Hospital.

    The MTA claims that this would be dangerous and should only be done with an underground "flyover" grade separation that prevents collisions between southbound Green Line and north-to-westbound Red Line trains. Such a flyover would obviously be too big and expensive to do. But the MTA has never proven that this is necessary, and with a sophisticated state-of-the-art computer guidance system, it seems that a failsafe collision-proof guidance could be assured. But the MTA doesn't care what I think, of course.

    The MTA doesn't seem to have a problem with a conflict between southbound Green Line and eastbound Red Line trains, though, since a flyover wouldn't help them.

  9. Still no rail line out to the east side of the city and county. That is where a green line extension should go.