February 2, 2010
Comprehensive Rail Solution
LET'S FOCUS ON WHAT WE REALLY NEED
Freight, intercity high speed rail, and regional transit such as the Red Line - It all needs to be envisioned together, along with the role of Baltimore in the world economy, and between the inner city, our neighboring cities and the suburbs.
Mark Reutter's latest article in the Baltimore Brew is a great starting point for thinking out loud about the chaotic state of comprehensive rail planning in the Baltimore region. The Maryland Department of Transportation's recent award of a $70 million down-payment from the Feds to begin work on the replacement of the Amtrak tunnel in West Baltimore is but a tiny droplet compared to the multi-billion dollar "needs" which have been defined by MDOT and all concerned.
Like spoiled children in a toy store who don't know what they really wants or really need, we simply clamor for everything. Briefly, rounded to the nearest billion or so, is some of the MDOT wish-list:
1 - A billion to replace the Amtrak tunnel with one that finally meets 1930s standards.
2 - A few billion for a new freight line through Baltimore to replace the CSX line which includes the notorious tunnel under Howard Street.
3 - A few more billion for a true high speed transit line between Downtown Baltimore, Washington and BWI-M airport, as planned by the MTA.
4 - More billions to extend this high speed line northward to Philadelphia and New York.
5 - Another billion or so for general MARC improvements to stations, tracks and whatnot.
6 - Several billion for a Metro heavy rail extension from Greenbelt to BWI-M airport. The rest of MDOT's grand ambitions within the DC metropolitan area shall go unmentioned here.
7 - A couple billion for the Red Line.
8 - Something less than a billion for a nice cheap extension of the MARC Line from Camden Station through the someday-to-be-vacated Howard Street CSX tunnel to 26th Street in Charles Village, then east to Clifton Park or so, as called for in the MARC master plan.
9 - Another relatively cheap augmentation to MARC for local transit on between Dorsey and Camden Station and between Odenton and Edgewood, as called for in the 2002 MTA regional rail plan.
10 - Many more billions to complete the regional rail plan to Towson, White Marsh, Dundalk and maybe some other places. Otis Rolley modestly estimated this at a mere $25 billion in an "audacious ideas" article. Audacious indeed. (The $25B includes the Red Line.)
So you can see how the tiny $70 million tip of the federal iceberg escalates into major "throw money at our problems" fantasy land. Our recent award is something around a thousandth of the total price tag of the MDOT wish list.
BACK TO REALITY
What is very obviously needed are some general principals to govern this indulgent display for someone else's largess. I suggest the following:
1 - Figure out the freight first - Not only is the hazardous material now traveling through our obsolete tunnels something to fear, and not only is freight movement a crucial national economic engine, but the freight solution will largely dictate the passenger solution. Moreover, the freight solution is relatively low-tech. All freight needs in Baltimore is just a spacious, flat, safe, well-ventilated tunnel with double tracks for double stacks.
2 - Position transit for Baltimore's emerging role - Movement between cities is where the true growth in mass transit is in the 21st century. The fate and role of Baltimore will increasingly be defined by its position between Washington, Philadelphia and New York, not its position between Woodlawn and Dundalk. Baltimore is now seen as a funky low-cost outpost between its neighboring world-class cities, both in terms of the information-age "creative class" and in terms military, national security and other growing public sectors. Aberdeen and Fort Meade were the recent big military winners because of their proximity to Washington, not Baltimore.
Based on these two simple premises, it's surprising how easily some real solutions emerge from the mass fantasy confusion:
1 - Design the new Amtrak tunnel in West Baltimore to serve as Baltimore's future freight route. This is the best place to put a freight line, so it should be designed that way and eventually freight should be allowed to take over and passenger trains should be moved elsewhere. At a billion, this freight route is a bargain compared with some of the other solutions that have been put forth, such as tunneling southward under the harbor. This would be the best billion we could ever spend to ensure Baltimore's port freight future.
This new tunnel cannot and will not be designed for true high speed rail. At best, it can only shave several minutes off the travel time, but it can be designed to be ideal for freight trains.
2 - Begin serious planning for true high speed passenger rail in the northeast U.S. corridor between Washington, Baltimore and New York. There is much about the extensive planning that MTA has already conducted that can serve as a starting point, although this time, it needs to be serious, not just a study that gets stuck on a shelf when it's done. The MTA obviously has had no faith in their own high speed rail planning because they abandoned it before it was even completed, adding to their trail of failed transit planning studies over the years.
High speed intercity passenger rail must be thought of as mass transit. You have your fare card. You step up to the platform and wait for your train. No reservations. No fixed schedules. It should be fully demand-responsive. For that reason, smaller automated vehicles are undoubtedly the way to go. Amtrak Acela is a 1959 Edsel compared with what is needed. Why should we spend billions redesigning the existing Amtrak tracks to accommodate 1959 Edsels?
The optimum dimensions for a 21st century passenger rail tunnel are probably achieved by the existing cramped Howard Street freight tunnel, where sleek new high speed vehicles can negotiate with ease. The grades should be no problem, and any sharp turns would be close enough to the stations to be merely a minor factor. The Baltimore Arena site would make a perfect downtown terminal.
High speed rail should be planned to replace Amtrak. Incredulously enough, the MTA has envisioned its proposed high speed rail as diverting only a negligible number of Amtrak riders. But Maryland should be in the forefront of a full transition from Amtrak to an entirely new passenger system, so that the existing Edsel vehicles and tracks can be given over to freight.
3 - Focus Baltimore's regional rail system on serving the high density inner city, and on being a local distributor for the intercity high speed lines. Baltimore's inner city is finally ready to be converted to a totally transit-oriented domain, where it can serve to extend the "reach" of Baltimore's connections to Washington, Philadelphia and New York. All it needs is efficient, well designed and well connected transit. The lower density outer city and suburbs are nowhere near ready to make this transition. These areas are still in the process of exerting their independence from Baltimore's core, which started in the 1950s and accelerated with the completion of the Beltway in the mid-'60s and will not abate until it needs to.
All we really need is rail transit that allows the high density inner city to function as an integrated urban unit, so that once you get there, from Hopkins Hospital or New York or anywhere in between, you can get anywhere.
The MTA Red Line typifies the political urge to make any rail line all-things to all-people, urban and suburban alike, which ultimately results in failure to accomplish anything. The Red Line needs very fast, very high capacity service between efficient comprehensive transit hubs located where everything comes together. In that it now totally fails. There must be a single integrated downtown core hub. The Franklin-Mulberry corridor wasteland needs to be totally transformed. And there needs to be an East Baltimore hub with efficient connections between the Metro, MARC and the bus system. All of these can be connected with a short, simple Red Line that shares the existing Metro line tunnel between Downtown and Hopkins Hospital.
We need to keep our eyes on the prize, which is Baltimore and Maryland's specific role in the world economy and along the northeast corridor of world-class cities.