September 1, 2009

MTA vs LHF Plans


The MTA Red Line philosophy is "one size fits all". And if the shoe doesn't fit, the MTA will spend hundreds of millions of dollars extra to bury as much of the line as they think they might afford so no one has to look at it. If the crammed-in lines don't connect, they'll build yet another tunnel to make people walk between them. Then they'll cram the rest of the line through the communities that they can't afford to bury, whether anyone likes it or not.

The "Low Hanging Fruit" philosophy is a total opposite: Build a rail transit system that fits its environment, so that people will orient their lives to it. Take advantage of the opportunities that have already been planned to make the city more livable, and bring those plans into harmony with the rail transit system. Build transit to transform the city, not to cram it through.

By taking maximum advantage of existing infrastructure and building to a scale suitable to the environment, the entire Low Hanging Fruit plan would cost approximately the same as the MTA's $1.6 billion "preferred" Red Line plan. Since much of the LHF plan incorporates projects that are already being planned outside the Red Line anyway, the true comparative cost would actually be much less. Place to place, here's how the MTA's "preferred" Red Line plan compares with the "Low Hanging Fruit Plan":

MTA PLAN - Downtown is the centerpiece and most expensive part of the MTA's "preferred" Red Line plan. Here they plan to bury the Red Line under Downtown's biggest and baddest traffic sewer, Lombard Street (shown above), which will remain as auto-dominated as ever, hostile to pedestrians and lined with wall-to-wall parking garages. Three stations are proposed here, with a fourth dropped for cost reasons. Construction will be very disruptive.

The transformation of Lombard Street will be limited only to new stairs, escalators and elevators to access these underground stations, and perhaps several new pedestrian spaces such as the one currently being rebuilt at the base of the former USF&G/Legg Mason tower at Light Street. The Red Line will be two blocks away from the existing subway under Baltimore Street, so the MTA intends to build a pedestrian tunnel under Light Street, with a moving belt sidewalk to enable riders to get from one isolated station to the other.

LHF PLAN - This plan will avoid hundreds of millions of dollars and years of construction disruption by having the Red Line share the existing Metro subway tunnel under Eutaw and Baltimore Streets. Transfers from one line to the other can then be made at any station simply by stepping off the train onto the platform.

Baltimore Street carries far less traffic than Lombard, so it can be suitably redesigned to become a livable urban street. It is also sufficiently wide at the critical locations, such as the Charles Center subway entrance shown above, to accommodate design creativity and traffic flow simultaneously.

The three key blocks are between Howard and Charles. The west end adjacent to the Baltimore Arena is already being used as a low-rent impromptu transit hub. The other two blocks can be transformed in concert with the renewal of Charles Center, especially the vacant Mechanic Theater adjacent to the Metro Station entrance (shown above), which provides sufficient room away from traffic flow to accommodate transit and people-oriented activities.

One potential concept for this portion of Baltimore Street is to build a short spur from the Howard Street light rail line to the Charles Center Metro entrance. In that way, the entire rail transit system would converge at a single point, which is the overall goal of all but the very largest successful urban rail transit systems.

All this can be done without the cost and disruption of new tunneling.


MTA PLAN - The MTA Red Line does not include Charles Street or any north-south corridor. The MTA has kept an arms length from the detailed professional planning study which has been sponsored by the Charles Street Development Corporation demonstrating the feasibility of a Charles Street Trolley. This $150 million streetcar line would travel from the Inner Harbor northward through downtown, Mount Vernon and Penn Station (Station North) to Charles Village, Hopkins University and Tuscany-Canterbury. The primary stipulation the MTA has made is that the $150 million Charles Street Trolley project not usurp any federal funding away from their Red Line.

LHF PLAN - The CSDC Charles Street Trolley plan should be planned as an integral part of the region's rail plan, and not just as a mere "circulator", both by intimately orienting it to Red and Green Lines downtown at the Charles Center Metro station (shown above), and also by making it part of a comprehensive streetcar network centered on the Inner Harbor. It should collaborate, rather than compete, with the Red Line for federal funding. If planned properly, it would dramatically increase the "reach" of the entire system.


MTA PLAN - The Red Line would not serve the Inner Harbor, except through the back basement door at Lombard Street.

LHF PLAN - The photo above shows how the current Charles Street trolley plan might look in the Inner Harbor. However, we can do much better. The City is already planning to spend about $100 million to transform and rebuild Pratt Street and relocate intersecting Light Street adjacent to the Inner Harbor to create a totally new environment. This is a perfect opportunity to upgrade the streetcar plan to fully integrate it with the street plans, providing exclusive rights-of-way for streetcars on both streets. As the front door and most prominent window on the city, the Inner Harbor streets should fully become people and transit-oriented places instead of urban speedways.

The streetcar line would run in both directions along Pratt Street from Charles to Pier 5, and then through Pier 5 to Eastern Avenue and/or a new bridge to Fleet Street and Harbor East. The Light Street branch of the streetcar system would run the length of the Inner Harbor to the Science Center at Key Highway.


MTA PLAN - The Red Line would remain in a tunnel and would have two stations, one between Central Avenue and Eden Street to the east of Harbor East, and the other under Broadway in Fells Point.

LHF PLAN - The line would be similar to MTA surface street Alternative 4A, but with a crucial difference. Since it would operate as single vehicle streetcars instead of multi-vehicle block long trains, it would be able to easily run in the existing traffic lanes (e.g. eastbound on Eastern Avenue and westbound on Fleet Street). The streetcars would also need station stops of only about 60 feet long, about the same as bus stops, instead of stations occupying entire blocks in order to accommodate four car light rail trains.

Because of this, unlike in the MTA plans, virtually all on-street parking would be preserved. In turn, more stations could easily be provided, such as one near President Street serving Little Italy, along with the heart rather than the periphery of Harbor East. This is particularly crucial because of this area's strong demand for relatively short trips whereby convenience is more important than speed. The MTA's own study found that their surface alternative is more cost-effective (more riders and time savings per dollar) than the alternatives with tunnels.


MTA PLAN - The Red Line would emerge from the ground at a large portal built into an enlarged median strip onto Boston Street near Montford Avenue. Boston Street would have to be totally redesigned to squeeze the heavy traffic into a single lane in each direction to accommodate the light rail line. There would be two stations in this median, one near the American Can retail complex near Lakewood Avenue and the other near Canton Crossing near Clinton Street.

LHF PLAN - The streetcar line would either remain in the existing lanes of Eastern Avenue and/or Fleet Street through Canton, or turn into Boston Street. Either way, the streets would remain approximately as-is except for modifications to accommodate the short station stops of about 60 foot length. All stops would be along the sidewalks rather than sandwiched between the heavy traffic in the median strip. Additional stops could easily be provided because of their low impact and the demand for more convenient service.


MTA PLAN - The line would enter an abandoned freight railroad right of way northeast of Boston Street near Conkling Street. It would have a station serving Highlandtown at the existing railroad bridge above Eastern Avenue (shown above, with the proposed Highlandtown Loft District).

LHF PLAN - The LHF and MTA alignments could be the same in this area, taking advantage of the livable transit-oriented design of the Highlandtown Loft District plan. However, an additional station could be provided to serve the rapidly growing Brewers Hill community, which could then also be made equally as transit-oriented as the Highlandtown Loft plan.

Alternatively, the streetcar line could use the portion of Eastern Avenue under the railroad bridges, which was originally built for streetcars and is severely overdesigned for its present use as a short four lane traffic expressway between Highlandtown and Greektown. Under this latter alternative, the line could proceed along Eastern Avenue through the heart of the Greektown business district to the Hopkins Bayview campus. It could then be extended to Dundalk and Turners Station as originally intended in the 2002 regional rail transit plan, but which has been rendered virtually infeasible in the MTA's "preferred" plan.


MTA PLAN - Two Bayview stations would be at the end of the line in the "preferred" MTA plan, one serving a MARC Commuter rail station and parking lot around the Norfolk Southern freight yard, the other terminating in the Hopkins Bayview campus. The fundamental problem with this arrangement is that the alignment creates a very long circuitous "S" curve that maximizes travel distance and time to downtown and for the entire line, despite about a mile of tunneling into downtown. Even worse, it makes it very difficult and untenable to ever extend the line beyond Bayview to Dundalk, Eastpoint, Essex or the suburbs beyond.

LHF PLAN - The much more efficient and effective concept is to extend the existing heavy rail Metro east from Hopkins Hospital to Bayview along the Amtrak right of way. The MARC station would be located at the large vacant site shown above, at Edison Highway and Monument Streets, which would also provide an ideal connection point for the entire MTA bus route network from the northeast and east. The streetcar line from Canton and Highlandtown could also conveniently terminate at this point, along its abandoned freight branch line.

The heavy rail line would then continue slightly farther along this right of way to Hopkins Bayview (seen on the horizon in this photo). Travel time would be only about 6 minutes to Hopkins Hospital and 9 minutes to Charles Center. The line would also be poised for further extension beyond into the suburbs, with eminently feasible branches to Dundalk, Eastpoint, Essex, Middle River and White Marsh.

There would be a third station near where the line comes out of the ground east of Hopkins Hospital near the Biotech Park and the Berea community. This is a very high density transit-oriented community.


MTA PLAN - The Red Line would come out of the ground west of downtown near the interchange of MLK Boulevard and the infamous Franklin-Mulberry "highway to nowhere", where it would turn into the desolate and isolated median strip shown above. There would be one station on MLK Boulevard just south of the interchange, one in the median strip near Carey Street, and one just beyond the west end of the highway ditch at the West Baltimore MARC station.

LHF PLAN - The key to the LHF plan is to squeeze the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway down to four standard urban lanes from its current width, which was rendered obsolete when it no longer was part of the Interstate Highway system. The narrowed roadway would be shifted up against the south retaining wall of the ditch (to the right in the photo montage above). The transit line would be located next to the narrowed road. This would free-up about a mile of multi-level space for a new fully transit-oriented community between Franklin Street and the transit line.

This plan would have a short tunnel spur off the existing Metro, north of the Lexington Market Station, and come out of the ground just west of MLK Boulevard. The MLK Boulevard station would be located just west of the tunnel portal adjacent to a southern expansion of the beautiful Heritage Crossing community. The other two stations would be located near Carey Street and the West MARC station.

MTA PLAN - The MTA plan would ram the Red Line into the already crowded Edmondson Avenue (Route 40 corridor) where houses are built right up to the street. This would require the elimination of one of the three lanes in each direction on this already congested major arterial highway. It would also require the elimination of much parking as well as left turn lanes. There would be only two stations, at Allendale Road and at Edmondson Village shopping center, so much of this large community would still find it much more convenient to take buses, which would get caught in the congestion created by the narrowing of Route 40.

LHF PLAN - Under the LHF plan, the Red Line would terminate for now at the West MARC station and would never run on Edmondson Avenue. Bus service would be upgraded in the community by extending premium Quick Bus lines into branches to Wildwood Parkway, Westview, Catonsville and other locations. Station stops would be upgraded to the same standards as the new streetcar service, but would remain located along sidewalks rather than stranded in median strips surrounded by whizzing traffic. Local bus shuttles would be provided to the West MARC station, which would serve as a comprehensive transit hub providing connections to everywhere.

Possible future rail transit extensions could serve Font Hill, oriented to a possible major new community on the site of the former vast Southwestern High School campus, FredHilton and Irvington, and many points to the west.


MTA PLAN - The MTA had to narrow their tunnel under Cooks Lane to a single reversible track, because of their project's deficiency to federal cost effectiveness standards. This will seriously jeopardize service reliability. Homeland security is a major issue at the stations serving the federal SSA and CMS complexes. Stations under the MTA plan have had to be located far away from the buildings for security reasons, well beyond the parking lots, which will make the rail service unattractive to those who can drive. An additional station also had to be eliminated from the plan for the same reason. Two other stations will serve Security Square Mall and a park and ride lot on the former Interstate 70.

LHF PLAN - This area will be served by the enhanced Quick Bus and local bus service described under "Edmondson Village".


MTA PLAN - The MTA plan does not include this area.

LHF PLAN - The plan would incorporate a recent proposal by the Baltimore City government to extend the streetcar system southward from the Inner Harbor through the Federal Hill community to Port Covington, on the shore of the Middle Branch. As can be seen from the photo above, this area has huge undeveloped parcels which used to be a railroad yard. The parcel shown is part of the printing press plant owned by the Baltimore Sun. Behind the printing plant is a Wal-Mart store.

The streetcar line would integrate Port Covington into the urban fabric of South Baltimore and greatly enhance its development potential.


  1. Some great ideas here. What about expansion to Federal Hill and Locust Point via the already existing CSX/MARC tracks?
    See my post here

  2. I just noticed the "Homeland Security" issue in the MTA's Fall 2009 Red Line Update. Is there, objectively, a real problem with having stations near SSA buildings? (Or, less charitably, some self-aggrandizement on the part of SSA honchos?) Like you pointed out, having to walk across a parking lot wasteland makes the red line a much less attractive option for getting to work. Is there a way to make more noise about this?

  3. Excellent presentation. Now the bigger challenge: getting the MTA/MDOT to recognize the advantages and go for it