June 3, 2008

Transit Hierarchy

Graphic from the MTA's 2002 Regional Rail System Plan


The MTA created a very difficult goal for a rail transit system when they developed their 2002 plan. They already seem to have thrown up their hands and given up on most of it.

Really now, it shouldn't be that hard to come up with a comprehensive system plan that can be built quickly and effectively.

Here's a status report on where the MTA's long range plan is right now:

MARC Commuter Rail - In the 2002 plan, the MTA wanted to create a kind of "Mini-MARC" system that would use the Amtrak and CSX mainline railroads for a more localized kind of crosstown transit, shuttling passengers between new stations tucked along the tracks in old fashioned whistle stops like Sandtown-Winchester, Rossville, Landsdowne and about four or so others, rather than emphasizing the long distance commutes to Washington's Union Station or Downtown Baltimore. How these little whistle stops could be made to coexist with the superfast Amtrak trains, especially Acela, was never figured out. As the need for better interregional transit to serve the employment and military base expansions in Aberdeen, Fort Meade and the DC Metro area and the overall need to cut traffic growth in the I-95 corridor gets more crucial, this idea for downgrading MARC into a new kind of localized crosstown service looks increasingly absurd. It appears to have been quietly scuttled in favor of a more conventional upgrade of existing MARC service.
Heavy Rail Extension - The 2002 plan looked to have a huge role for expansion of the heavy rail Metro, calling for a multi-billion dollar extension of the existing line to Morgan State University, Hamilton, Perry Hall, White Marsh, Middle River, Martin Airport, and along I-95. The rhetoric of the plan also strongly implied that other legs of the system would be built to high heavy rail standards as well, if not actually as heavy rail, with maximum segregation of traffic and transit. However, ever since, the MTA seems to have done everything possible to disown the idea of heavy rail expansion.

Light Rail - Filling the void left by the rejection of heavy rail and Mini-MARC is light rail. As such, the MTA has fully embraced light rail not because of any inherent advantages that it might have, but simply because of its flexibility as a "default" mode that can be built just about anywhere, even where it really does not fit. This is the same mentality that led to the debacle of light rail on Howard Street, where it overwhelms the streetscape but is still painfully slow.

Bus Rapid Transit - On paper, this is the best mode, with the lowest cost and the highest ridership. In accordance with federal regulations, the MTA must study it. However, nobody who is still anybody has expressed any enthusiasm for it. The relative positive attributes of BRT seem to be mostly due to the poor performance of the MTA's other alternatives.

In sum, in the six years since the 2002 plan was completed, there is practically nothing coming out of the MTA rail transit planning to be enthusiastic about. The MTA is pretending that the current Red Line planning is still on track as an outgrowth of the 2002 plan, but the foundation of that plan has been totally eaten away.

The MTA is still pretending that they can build a comprehensive rail transit system in the Baltimore area, based on using all-purpose light rail, but they have provided no evidence that they can. When they finally release their long-awaited Red Line Draft Environmental Impact Statement, we can find out for sure.

But let's not wait for that. It's actually a rather simple matter to envision the replacement of the MTA's all-purpose "one size fits all" light rail planning with something that can really work.

It's all a matter of respecting the hierarchy between the various transit modes.


Once the transit needs are broken down into a hierarchy, everyone should easily agree on what should be done.

We should all agree that a new East Baltimore MARC commuter rail station needs to be built very quickly, and the West Baltimore MARC Station needs to be upgraded in a big way. These two stations need to be tied into the MTA's comprehensive system to the maximum extent possible, so that Baltimore is an integral part of the new interregional transit system.

The way in which MARC ties into the Washington Metro system is a perfect model for this. Union Station has a MARC/Metro transfer. New Carrollton is a comprehensive MARC/Metro/WMATA bus transit hub, and Silver Spring and Greenbelt also perform these functions. Baltimore needs as much.

MARC is by far the MTA's most successful transit system, in ridership growth and in winning the hearts and minds of the mainstream traveling public that wonders what the MTA can do for them. MARC travels from Washington, DC to the Baltimore region, and then on to Perryville in Cecil County, and eventually (we should all agree) onward to (at least) Wilmington, Delaware.
This is the rail network that accommodates the very longest transit trips in the larger super-region of which Baltimore is now an integral part, extending far beyond the traditional five county definition of the Baltimore region. We should all agree that the boundaries between the Baltimore and Washington region are becoming increasingly blurry.

While it still may be controversial to say that Baltimore is now a suburb of Washington, it's also beside the point, since Baltimore and Washington are both now part of a larger mega-metropolitan area that transcends traditional urban boundaries.
Instead of subverting the natural hierarchical transit order by concocting a "Mini-MARC" system that seems to behave like a lower level in the hierarchical transit chain, we must make the MARC system serve this larger interregional corridor as well as possible. The MARC plan should thus not obsess over a trips from, say, the Sandtown-Winchester to Madison Park neighborhoods, and thereby clog up the network that is trying to accommodate the longer interregional trips.

In any event, the whole "Mini-MARC" concept has gotten scant attention since the 2002 plan was created, so good riddance. MARC and Amtrak need lots of attention, but not that kind of attention.
And most obviously, the Level One Interregional Rail system needs to tie much more effectively into the Level Two Regional Rail system.
We should all agree that the connection between the Red Line and the West Baltimore MARC Station should be as high quality as possible. The New Carrollton and Union Station DC Metro Stations are good models. Red Line service between West MARC and Downtown should be at least as good, which it can be because of the opportunities of the Franklin-Mulberry Corridor.
The proposed Red Line connection to an East Baltimore MARC Station at Bayview in the MTA's current Red Line plan has been somewhat of an afterthought, and was not incorporated into that plan until relatively recently last year.
The MTA has also proposed a second East Baltimore MARC Station along the Green Line extension near Hopkins Hospital at Madison Park.
The MTA needs to determine the best and most expeditious place to build a comprehensive MARC/regional rail/bus transit hub in East Baltimore, and make its regional rail line the highest priority project. The candidates are Bayview along the Red Line, Madison Park along the Green Line, or in between at Edison/Monument along a realigned Green Line.
A Madison Park MARC station would be a 4 to 5 minute transit ride to downtown on the Green Line Metro. An Edison/Monument MARC station would be a 6 to 7 minute transit ride to downtown along the Green Line Metro. A Bayview MARC station would be something like a 20 to 25 minute ride to downtown along the Red Line light rail, and would also be the most expensive.
It seems rather obvious that the MTA's Red Line plan is the worst.

We should all agree that streetcars can provide rail transit service in localized urban areas that regional rail simply can't.
The MTA currently has no official role in any streetcar planning. Their 2002 plan doesn't even acknowledge the idea.

But the Charles Street Development Corporation is taking a very proactive stance on getting a streetcar line in the north corridor. They are not waiting around for the MTA to build the Yellow Line contained in their "official" rail transit plan. The CSDC rightly does not want to wait that long, which could be forever.
A very modest but highly visible streetcar network would allow Baltimore to create a comprehensive rail transit system very quickly - especially compared with the multi-decade snail's pace of the MTA's "one size fits all" planning process.
Streetcars have tremendous advantages over regional rail in established urban corridors. Streetcars can coexist with parking and pedestrian patterns and have reasonably walkable station spacing. Streetcars do not conflict with travel and circulation patterns that have evolved over many decades and would only be upset by the introduction of regional rail. Just look at what happened with light rail on Howard Street.
At the same time, streetcars do not need to be fast because they are oriented to short distance trips where comfort, user-friendliness, community compatibility, and reliability are much more important than speed.
The MTA's Red Line does not connect directly to the heavy rail Metro. It also does not directly serve the Inner Harbor. Everyone should immediately recognize that these two failings are simply unacceptable.
Mayor Shiela Dixon's transition team report stated that rail transit on Pratt Street, the front door of the Inner Harbor, should be a priority. The MTA rejected this, but Mayor Dixon's advisors were correct.
So we should all agree that as soon as possible:
  • Baltimore's transit system needs ARTERIES - to be intimately tied into the MARC commuter rail system serving the larger "super-region" extending from Washington, DC toward Delaware.
  • Baltimore's transit system needs BONES AND MUSCLES - to be intimately fused together with a network of comprehensive intermodal transit hubs.
  • Baltimore's transit system needs AN ATTRACTIVE SKIN - to have the best and most attractive possible "urban face" provided by streetcars in the high visibility corridors of the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Charles Street and other special locations that give the city its unique signature.