April 23, 2008

Charles Street Trolley Extension


For the proposed Charles Street Trolley line to truly fit into its own distinct place in the region's transit system, it should be extended eastward along 33rd Street to Baltimore City College, then northward on Loch Raven Boulevard to Northwood Shopping Center near Morgan State University.

This would be a modest expansion to a modest project, but it would increase its scope dramatically, and transform the trolley from being a community-based initiative to one with truly regional significance. It would elevate the trolley into a vehicle for the transformation of the transit system and its aspiration for excellence.

Operationally, it would simply allow the current #3 bus line, which also serves Northwood Shopping Center along Loch Raven Boulevard, to make a much quicker trip to Downtown, allowing it to bypass the more urban Charles Village corridor and let the trolley serve that area instead.

Such a trolley line would serve an expanded "Uptown" corridor that would include not only Charles Village, but Waverly and the Memorial Stadium area, as well as Northwood and Morgan State University. Trolleys are much more suited to serve this type of medium and high density multi-use urban corridor. This would allow the #3 bus line, and also the major #8 bus line on Greenmount and the more meandering #36 bus line, to focus on what they can do better - linking more suburban areas to downtown, while also serving as feeders to the trolley line.

A daunting problem of the current Charles Street trolley proposal is that it provides redundant service to the MTA bus lines that are already in the corridor. This redundancy would no doubt be exacerbated if the trolley line were run by a separate independent entity and not the MTA. Would the MTA work closely with the Charles Street Development Corporation and its trolley offspring to ensure that all transit modes function in concert as a cohesive system? There's not much chance of that happening, since the MTA hasn't even had a proactive role in the streetcar planning, much less in its implementation. They have virtually no stake in the trolley's success. They also have enough trouble running their own shop, much less trying to ensure the success of another independent operator.

The scope of the Charles Street Trolley project needs to be expanded so it is just big enough to make a big impact, and to demand that the MTA adopt it and work to make it work.


Turning the trolley line eastward onto 33rd Street from the Charles/St. Paul Corridor at Hopkins University is a very natural thing to do, both physically and operationally. Physically, 33rd Street has a very wide median framed by trees that could form an organic canopy for the streetcars to travel under. Operationally, 33rd Street is already a major link for the high-volume #3 bus line between the northeast Loch Raven corridor and the north central Charles/St. Paul Corridor.

The tree canopy of the 33rd Street median would be an ideal place for the Charles Street Trolley line in the Waverly Business District looking west toward Greenmount Avenue.

It seems rather odd, however, for the #3 bus line to make this diversionary shift from one corridor to another on its way downtown. The fact that this shift adds many riders to the #3 line is a strong suggestion that this route would be more appropriate for a streetcar line, which is a transit mode specifically tailored to the needs of a multi-use urban environment, than for the #3 bus line which could then focus on the traditional suburb to downtown radial function. This would be accomplished by running the #3 bus line all the way down Loch Raven instead of making the detour to Charles Village, as would some major improvements to expedite traffic in this area (see blog article on the Jones Falls/Belvidere connection). The #3 line could also then be converted into an express-style "QuickBus" like the recently instituted #40 east-west line.

The Northwood Shopping Center on Loch Raven Boulevard would be a perfect location for a transit terminal to connect the end of the trolley line to the #3 bus line. Located at the southern end of Morgan State University, this shopping center could be re-fashioned into a "college-town" commercial district in the same way as is being done in the district at Johns Hopkins University (also along the trolley line) in a very vibrant and successful way.

Northwood Shopping Center looking toward the big empty former Hecht Company department store, with Morgan State University dorms hovering overhead in the background. This parking lot could be made into a campus main street business district at the end of the streetcar line.

The Northwood Shopping Center has suffered from the same kind of obsolescence as many other old suburban style retail centers. But the surrounding neighborhood is extremely solid, so a redesign that integrates the retail into both the community and the campus could create a sense of ownership and identity among residents and students, instead of allowing the shopping center to be an isolated island of blight and abandonment.

From this point, the trolley line would proceed southward on Loch Raven Boulevard and The Alameda to 33rd Street. All three of these streets have wide attractive medians that are tailor-made for streetcar lines. One of the great things about streetcar tracks is that grass can still grow between the rails, and trees can readily hover over the top to blend into the sylvan setting. This portion of the Northwood and Lakeside neighborhoods could become Baltimore's version of Cleveland's Shaker Heights, conjuring up a lifestyle of gracious trolleys traversing amid gracious mid-century homes.

Loch Raven Boulevard just south of Northwood Shopping Center could become Baltimore's Shaker Heights.

From The Alameda, the trolley line would turn into 33rd Street, thus becoming another part of an educational district of vast potential. Just south of 33rd Street is one of the city's select few truly monumental edifices, the Baltimore City College - also known as the "Castle on the Hill".

The "Castle on the Hill" - Baltimore City College seen on the distant horizon from Loch Raven Boulevard.

This building represents Baltimore's fleeting brush with greatness as a world-class urban center. Baltimore City College is actually a high school, not a college. It's a high school that was referred to as a college, because when it was built in the 1920s, it was part of a lofty ambition to treat high school students as if they were college students.

While nowadays, the image of the Baltimore City school system gets constantly trashed by almost everyone, suffering an even worse reputation than the MTA, this magnificent building is a gigantic symbol of everything that this city could and once did aspire to - not just in education but in everything. Just compare the ambitions represented by this cathedral of learning to the school system's current educational goal of attempting to get the citywide high school drop-out rate below 60 percent. And even worse, Baltimoreans are often now literally scared out of their wits by city high school students marauding on MTA buses.

Linking City College to the trolley line would put it directly in the educational chain from Morgan State University, the city's leading historically black college, to Hopkins University, the city's historically almost-Ivy League college, to the midtown University of Baltimore, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Peabody Conservatory.

Across the street from City College, Johns Hopkins has already taken over a vacant city high school and turned it into an adjunct to their campus a mile to the west. What is needed here, again, is to create a seamless physical integration of Johns Hopkins at Eastern with Baltimore City College - to link the architectural glory of the City College high school with the educational aspirations of Johns Hopkins University. Instead of parking lots and vacuous spaces between athletic fields, there needs to be a true campus environment.

Baltimore City College (left) and Johns Hopkins at Eastern seen from the former Memorial Stadium site.

There is plenty of room for links to economic aspiration as well - for new business development to bring the "real world" into this educational nexus. This site was formerly occupied by Memorial Stadium, home of the Orioles and Colts for half a century. When it was torn down in the 90s, there was, of course, talk of lofty ambitions of what could take its place, but the only new construction has been an old-folks housing complex and a YMCA recreational center. Yes, these are great for the community, but they hardly fill the huge acreage or the tremendous potential of this area. The streetcar line could be just the construction project needed to get those ambitions stirring again.

The partially completed but mostly vacant Memorial Stadium redevelopment site, seen from Johns Hopkins at Eastern. The white rowhouses in the background used to be the backdrop behind centerfield (the trees were smaller then), making this one of the American League's toughest places to hit a white ball coming out of the pitcher's hand.

Further west along 33rd Street is the Waverly community, an area that took the role as the local "host" to the Orioles and Colts fans during their long reign. Since the fans left for Camden Yards in the 1990s, the entire Waverly community has felt like aging empty-nest parents whose kids have flown the coop, leaving the big Waverly house disturbingly quiet. Many Waverly folks miss the attention and the hub-bub, while many others have just taken it in with quiet resignation or have left for the old folks housing. The streetcar line would be a stimulating injection for Waverly.


Baltimore seems to veer schizophrenically between super grand visions and modest little gestures. The regional rail transit plan released in 2002 was a grand vision of ridiculous proportions. The City Paper called it "pornography" because it was designed for transit geeks to drool all over it in their wet dreams.

That plan had pretty much the same central corridor rapid transit line from Downtown to Towson that was contained in the 1966 plan. That would have cost a cool few billion in current dollars if it was all built underground as everyone hoped, dreamed and anticipated.

Eventually in the 1990s, Baltimore settled for building the Central Light Rail cheap choo-choo in the Jones Falls Valley, well away from the population centers that would have been served by the previous and subsequent proposals.

The grandiose 2002 plan was supposed to compensate for the shortcomings of the 1990s light rail line, but now in 2008 comes the Charles Street Trolley plan, which is another excursion back to the reality of modest proposals.

Meanwhile, in the northeast corridor, the old 1966 plan called for a major heavy rail DC-Metro style subway line to the suburb of Overlea, which is just outside the city line but was then near the outer edge of suburbia. By the 1980s, this line was scaled back to only go to Memorial Stadium, about four miles north of downtown. At that time, Memorial Stadium was already being contemplated for demolition, but it was widely felt that even in that case, it would be replaced with something suitably ambitious and befitting of the end of a transit line.

By the '90s, that plan was scaled back even more, and the Metro line was extended only to Hopkins Hospital just east of downtown. Ambition again took a back seat.

But the 2002 regional rail plan revived the full-fledged dream and then some. The Metro line was identified for extension to Morgan State University as a high priority project (equal in priority to the Red Line now being studied) as the first phase of a line that would subsequently to extended further northeast to Hamilton, then way out into the suburbs to White Marsh and then looping back southward to the Martin section of Middle River.

Please note that because this would be an extension of the existing line, all built as DC-Metro style fully grade separated heavy rail, and much of it would have to be built underground. It would probably match the mega-billion dollar Boston Big Dig for sheer ridiculous unadulterated balls to even contemplate building such a thing. Needless to say, this insane project has whimpered away into the transit annals of obscurity and slow death.

So now, since heavy rail is no longer in the cards, we are left with no rail transit plan to Morgan State.


The thing that really bugs people about the dismantling of streetcar systems such as Baltimore's in the 1950s and 1960s is that nothing decent took its place. Yes, the streetcar lines were already rotting from neglect at that time, but this went far beyond mere physical neglect to include the entire mismanagement of our cities.
Modern streetcar plans such as on Charles Street are nothing more and nothing less than a new way to look at the city.

The Charles Street Trolley is designed without pretensions to simply fit into the street as attractively as possible, so that people can travel in style along Baltimore's foremost four-mile corridor from Downtown to Midtown to Uptown. The allusions to Manhattan are not a coincidence, so OK - the pretensions are here after all.

What it amounts to is the same as if you're remodeling an entire house, you can't afford to install marble floors and rare Brazilian rainforest paneling in every room. But if you're just re-doing the little powder room under the back stairs, then to heck with it... Go ahead and splurge on the marble tile.

The Charles Street trolley should be expanded slightly from a community project to a new kind of linkage between principal points in Baltimore's urban chain, and so that buses - those vehicles of expedience - can serve the regional and downtown network more efficiently.
It's the same reason that in its heyday, the City of Baltimore built an incredible temple to learning in the Baltimore City College. Can ostentatious Gothic architecture and streetcars be vehicles for aspiration and learning? Yes, they can.


  1. I think this is a great idea. Who do we talk to?

  2. Your alignment on Loch Raven, 33rd and N. Charles is brilliant, but I wonder if it could turn west off of Charles just below 26th to run above or alongside the CSX tracks and connect to the existing light rail line just above North Avenue? That way, you'd still serve southern Charles Village, but avoid the impossibly narrow section of Charles just below 26th, plus you'd avoid having yet another line that doesn't directly connect with the others.

  3. I looked the idea of somehow having streetcars or light rail coexist with the CSX freight mainline in the 26th Street corridor, as Aaron suggests. But it looks difficult to me, and it would cause the line to miss Penn Station. But maybe there's a clever way that I'm missing. I never like to rule any idea out completely.

    Now if the CSX freight mainline was ever diverted swomewhere else and the entire CSX track corridor becomes available, that would be a different story. Then the Howard Street CSX tunnel would be available, and it would really pay to do something major with it.

    In that eventualilty, the MTA MARC Master Plan has proposed extending the Camden MARC line into the Howard Street tunnel and all the way eastward to Bayview.

    But I don't think a major expensive upgrade of the Camden MARC Line with at least one new underground downtown station, would be a big enough bang. I think we can do a lot better than that. I would put the new MagLev system, which will arrive EVENTUALLY, into the CSX Howard Street tunnel (see my Blog article). That would make it about a 15 minute ride to DC instead of upwards of 60 minutes.

  4. I have quoted your comment on the Charles Street Trolley on our web site Trolleytrouble.org AND put a pointer to its source in your blog.

    Great Ideas!!

    Let us know if you don't want your quote in our site and consider putting a pointer to our site in yours.

    Keep up the good work!

    Ed Hopkins
    The Street Car Gang

  5. Yes, Ed and the Streetcar Gang, by all means, you may quote and link me on yor website. I just checked out your website and didn't notice it, but go ahead. I'd do the same, but blogspot makes it sort of hard, so I've stayed away from links.

    If I heard correctly, the Charles Street Dev. Corp. folks have given up on the idea of a trolley tax district, so that's good news. I strongly believe that that streetcars should be planned, built and operated as an integral part of the MTA transit system, not some "special district", and this is reflected in my proposed system.

    This is just the opposite of the way the MTA has always seen it. Since the MTA's inception about 40 years ago, they have perceived rail transit as a huge expensive system, not streetcars, which is why so little of their plans have come to fruition.

    The MTA seems to have little regard for short transit trips in general, which is why they charge the same $1.60 fare whether you ride one block or 20 miles. And it is also why Baltimore City has elected to go into the transit biz, with a redundant system of short free bus routes fully subsidized by taxpayers.