October 9, 2009

MLK-FMX

A DIRECT SOLUTION TO THE FRANKLIN-MULBERRY STALEMATE DISASTER
The solution: Consolidating all the traffic into the current eastbound roadway to the right, thus freeing the remaining land now occupied by the median strip and the westbound roadway (left) for new transit-oriented development linked to the community.

Nobody denies that the US 40 "Highway to Nowhere" was instrumental in destroying the Franklin-Mulberry community in West Baltimore in the 1970s. But the truly amazing thing is that, three decades later, the City insists on maintaining that highway as-is, even in its so-far futile attempt to rebuild the community around it. That hasn't worked over the past thirty years and it won't work in the next thirty. And rail transit alone can't fix it either, as every other Baltimore area community with rail transit can attest, from Howard Street to Hunt Valley and Owings Mills.

The City is still in a state of denial about the cancerous effect created by this highway. Along with the MTA, they only see the wasteland it created as a vacuum which the transit Red Line can fill (with more parking for MARC commuters). They still cling to the expensive 1970s plan to cover over the highway "ditch" rather than truly repair it, which has been demonstrated to be unworkable by the decades of inaction.

Land along Franklin Street between Fremont and Schroeder remained undeveloped for decades because of the harmful economic effects of the adjacent "highway to nowhere". Beyond is the high rise building to be vacated by the Social Security Administration.

Back in the early 1990s, the City Housing Commissioner Dan Henson proposed the elimination of the entire "highway to nowhere" as part of the City's bold plan for Heritage Crossing. This proposal was made in a manner typical of the Schmoke administration. Like Mayor Schmoke's crusade for "medicalization" of drug offenders, it was an enlightened idea, but it was simply thrown on the table. Then-Governor and former Mayor Schaefer had no temperament for dealing with such out of the box thinking, and without wider backing, Mayor Schmoke's ideas were marginalized, just as Heritage Crossing itself was never incorporated into a larger plan to redevelop surrounding northwest Baltimore.

Typical of Mayor Schmoke and Commissioner Henson, they did not even reach out to the fellow bureaucrats at the City Planning Department who occupied the same office building as the city housing department, for support in how a plan dealing with the obsolete "highway to nowhere" could be made truly workable. (That included me.)

Nothing substantive has changed. The City government still has some lone crusaders like Dan Henson, but still resists comprehensive out-of-the-box thinking. The state has another former Mayor as Governor who still thinks of himself as the Baltimore's patriarchal guardian. And ideas like the Red Line show that there is still much more hype than substance to the plans. If the Red Line goes to construction in its current form, it will certainly end up in the same dysfunctional state as the rest of our rail transit system, particularly Schaefer's vaunted central light rail line.

THE CURRENT HIGHWAY MAKES CONGESTION WORSE ANYWAY

The crowning irony of all this is that keeping the gaping, sprawling, obsolete "highway to nowhere" also causes chronic congestion on Martin Luther King Boulevard underneath it. What we now have is a very free-flowing "highway to nowhere" up above, with all the turning movements bottling up MLK down below. By far the worst is the heavy left turn from northbound MLK to westbound Franklin Street, crammed into an exceedingly short left turn lane and subjected to an electronically variable second left turn lane installed as a pathetic "band aid" a few years ago.

The City has recently developed a very cavalier attitude about traffic congestion. The City is more than willing to squeeze the Edmondson Avenue and Boston Street communities to accommodate the MTA's version of the Red Line, cutting traffic capacity by up to half, which assures that congestion will get increasingly bad. But they are not willing to mess with traffic flow as it directly impacts downtown, so that commuters can act as they see fit, to drive to the dominant downtown parking garages.

Traffic will continue to dominate downtown where it really matters, in order to feed the city's development machine. To do this, the downtown section of the proposed Red Line will be kept underground out of the way to allow the parking garages to continue to attract maximum traffic.

In contrast, the City acts as if motorists using Edmondson, Boston Street and MLK can fend for themselves. Unlike on downtown streets like Pratt and Lombard, the outer areas have loads of alternate routes, even if they are many miles away like Fulton/Monroe, I-95 and the Beltway. Unlike downtown, regional traffic has room to "sort itself out" and disperse in ways that will obscure the costs and benefits.

Technical tools like computer simulation models for traffic volumes and flows are of little use in shedding light on all this. They were developed to evaluate major regional highways, not micro-level local impacts.

Apologists for this lack of technical rigor point to situations like the dismantling of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, where the traffic reportedly disappeared like magic. But there, all the proper infrastructure was in place to restore balance to the urban travel patterns. Unfortunately, we don't have that in Baltimore. Instead of effective BART regional and MUNI local transit, we have our MTA vainly attempting to compete with many tens of thousands of downtown parking garage spaces which were built to be filled up. And the San Francisco Bay Area, in spite of its urban success, still has an intractable regional sprawl problem fed by the difficulty of urban movement. The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge now connects the East Bay sprawl to Marin County much more than the urban Embarcadero Freeway once did.

But there are parallels between the Embarcadero and Franklin-Mulberry Expressway. Both have served both traffic and communities badly. And while the Embarcadero conspicuously stood between the waterfront and high income communities, Franklin-Mulberry stands between downtown and low to middle income communities.

THE SIMPLE SOLUTION

Here's the simple answer which strips the inherent problems of the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway down to the most basic solution: Just tear down its northernmost bridge over MLK Boulevard and consolidate the traffic onto the other southernmost bridge. In this way, the "highway to nowhere" will be downsized from a huge fragmented Interstate highway swath to a single narrow overpass. There are currently only two lanes on each bridge, but the Interstate-standard shoulder easily provides room for a third lane. Downtown highway bridges don't even have shoulders - the Orleans and Russell Street Viaducts certainly don't, and there was never a clamor to provide them the last time they were rebuilt.

Franklin Street looking west from MLK Blvd. between expressway bridge, which should be knocked down (left), and Heritage Crossing community (right).

Eastbound flow on the remaining bridge can easily be consolidated into a single lane by guiding its second lane into the Mulberry/MLK intersection. Most importantly for traffic flow, the current very difficult left turn from northbound MLK to the westbound Franklin-Mulberry Expressway can be diverted into an uninterrupted right turn loop ramp eastbound on Franklin, then westbound over the remaining bridge. This will greatly alleviate congestion on MLK at very little expense to Franklin-Mulberry.

Most importantly, this solution will create large attractive new development parcels along Franklin Street that can be integrated into Heritage Crossing, Downtown and the Franklin-Mulberry Corridor as a whole.

New development parcels are shown in yellow. New expressway connections are in green. New local streets are in blue. The MTA "preferred" Red Line alignment is in red.

This solution is also fully compatible with the MTA "preferred" Red Line alignment (shown above), and in fact allows that alignment to work much better by creating new transit oriented development parcels. But it would also enhance any other Red Line alternative.

It is also compatible with the City's long-promised plan to build development "caps" farther west where the expressway enters a ditch, although any need or benefit for those expensive and limiting "caps" would be totally obviated by narrowing the expressway (see BaltiMorphosis.com .)

Focusing on the creation of new development value at this end of the Franklin-Mulberry corridor near MLK Boulevard is now particularly crucial because of the Social Security Administration's recent decision to vacate its huge complex which is the essential link between here and downtown.

Tapping into the economic energy of downtown and maximizing the value and benefit from redeveloping the Social Security complex is the key to activating the Franklin-Mulberry corridor. The MTA Red Line plan doesn't even attempt to do this. It only proposes one transit station in the entire highway corridor, in the median strip between Carey and Calhoun Streets, about seven blocks west of MLK Boulevard, which would eventually be underneath a proposed cap. Another station would be located along MLK to the south, but the nearly block-long width of the existing dual-bridge expressway would prevent this from serving any new development in the expressway corridor, just as it is already a major impediment to activity and growth.

An additional Red Line station, located just west of MLK Boulevard at the same grade as Franklin Street and the Heritage Crossing community, would be a perfect way for transit to contribute to this revitalization. The elevation changes created by the ditch itself would not be a factor, as these do not begin until several blocks from this point west of Fremont Avenue. All that is necessary is to get rid of the expressway bridge that separates the Red Line from Franklin Street.

Proposed expansion of Heritage Crossing, shown in yellow, across Franklin Street toward the Red Line (to the left) and across MLK Boulevard toward the Social Security Administration Building (to the right).

Such a solution satisfies all the goals that Housing Commissioner Dan Henson must have had in mind when he proposed knocking down the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway to extend Heritage Crossing, and to jump-start further development throughout the corridor. It was easy for him to simply call for the destruction of the entire highway and ditch in order to begin anew, but by making such a sweeping proposal, he ended up getting nothing done. It is far better to focus on that part of a problem which is the greatest impediment, rather than a blanket attack (which is probably also why drug abuse is still such a pervasive problem.)

To satisfy our goals, we need to look at all aspects of the relationships between the city, transportation and other systems to identify the highest priorities for change.

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