June 8, 2010

How to Build a Heavy Rail Red Line


A potential Metro/MARC/Bus Transit Terminal along the Amtrak tracks at Edison Highway belies the MTA's contention that heavy rail is more expensive than light rail (Bayview is in background)

A Sun editorial of May 3rd repeats the oft-told falsehood about the MTA's Red Line opposition. That is, the Sun states that heavy rail would be "pricier" than light rail. So it must be repeated again: The Sun is absolutely wrong. A heavy rail plan would actually be far less expensive than the MTA's $1.8 billion light rail plan, in addition to being far more rational.

The Sun falls into this trap because they follow the same philosophy the MTA did in proposing their abominable one reversible track tunnel for the Red Line. The MTA previously proposed a one track tunnel because of their philosophy that it is OK to propose something cheaper and crummier in order to hammer out something that works on paper, and worry about the consequences later. That has been the overall reasoning behind their entire 15 mile Red Line proposal, most visibly by using undersized vehicles and squeezing the line onto Edmondson Avenue and Boston Street where it really does not fit.

A much better philosophy would be to build each rail transit segment right, with increments of as small as two miles apiece or even less, added onto what is already in place. Virtually every successful modern rail transit system in the world has been built through incremental expansion, rather than starting at square one with every new project as the MTA wants to do.

Each high quality segment would then become a solid foundation for building the next piece after that. A two-mile extension of a 16 mile line would create an 18 mile line. With the next two mile extension, it would become a 20 mile line. Baltimore is actually in a great position to build it this way because we already have the necessary solid foundation in the existing heavy rail subway, built to far higher quality standards than what the MTA now wants with its Red Line.

Inexpensive East Baltimore Extension

The MTA could easily build a very short inexpensive heavy rail extension beyond Hopkins Hospital that would leverage the entire 16 mile heavy rail system already built to Owings Mills, gaining the new ridership for many very long and wide-ranging trips from simply building a very short extension.

1.3 mile Metro extension along Amtrak from Hopkins Hospital to Edison Highway

Connectivity would grow geometrically. The entire heavy rail line could then be easily accessible, in the fastest possible way, to the MARC commuter rail system northeastward to Harford and Cecil Counties and southwestward to Washington DC. A truly comprehensive transit hub could finally be provided at the east terminus of the rail line, centrally located to serve virtually all major bus lines in east and northeast Baltimore, as a symmetrical compliment to the current Mondawmin hub. This connectivity would allow much of the MTA bus system to be restructured to take maximum advantage of the travel time advantage of the subway, as well as connecting the bus routes to each other and creating one place in northeast Baltimore from which you could get anywhere. Downtown bus traffic could finally be cut significantly.
Yes, the MTA is currently in the process of studying a heavy rail extension from Hopkins Hospital northward to Morgan State as part of a previous proposal to send it all the way out to White Marsh and Middle River. But they have buried this study, despite it being labeled "high priority", because it fails for the same blanket reason they have condemned all heavy rail. It proposes too much too soon, with too much of it underground which makes it far too expensive.

Instead, the heavy rail extension should go eastward where it can come out of the ground very quickly along the Amtrak tracks, and it can be terminated anywhere that a comprehensive transfer hub and MARC station can be located most feasibly, such as Edison/Monument or Bayview.

Finding the best location for a new East Baltimore MARC station is critical. The MTA wants to try to convince Amtrak and Norfolk Southern to let them build two new MARC stations only a couple miles apart, one at Bayview and one at Broadway, for the Red Line and Metro respectively. Extending the heavy rail line along the Amtrak tracks would mean the MTA would only need to build one new MARC station wherever it works best, with the fastest possible connection to downtown and the rest of the transit system. Travel time from MARC to downtown could be as little as five to six minutes.

After community cajoling, the MTA did have their consultants "cost out" a three mile Metro extension from Hopkins Hospital to the Baltimore Travel Plaza south of Bayview, at $700 million. This seems like a reasonable cost that a line that would result in a huge increase in transit system connectivity, but they could build far less than that in a first phase and still make sense. But of course, the MTA rejected this whole concept out of hand even before they made a single stab at analyzing it, unlike their own pet Red Line alternatives for which they tortured the data continuously until they got the numbers to work, even after they submitted it to the feds.

Inexpensive West Baltimore Extension

Similarly, a very short and inexpensive heavy rail extension could be built from Lexington Market to the existing West Baltimore MARC station in the Franklin-Mulberry corridor, where it would similarly leverage the entire bus and rail systems, including MARC to Washington. All of West Baltimore would then be easily accessible to the entire existing Metro, including State Center and Hopkins Hospital, as well as all the bus connections elsewhere along the line.
1.8 mile Metro extension along Franklin-Mulberry corridor from Lexington Market to West MARC Station

The Lexington Market station could then become the comprehensive central hub it was originally intended to be. An inexpensive new escalator connection could be provided over to the light rail line on Howard Street, and a downtown bus hub could be located on a state-owned parking lot connected to the station along Eutaw north of Saratoga.

In contrast, the MTA Red Line plan avoids their Lexington Market subway station altogether, largely giving up on creating the transit oriented district that has been envisioned since the 1960s inception of rail planning, in favor of new transit-oriented dreams for waterfront land that has largely already been redeveloped. In addition, the MTA plan wedges the Red Line into the median strip of the Franklin-Mulberry "highway to nowhere" as inexpensively as possible, with only the same old promise that eventually the ill-conceived and obsolete expressway would be "capped over" for new development, rather than rebuilding the corridor right as an integral part of the transit plan.

True transit-oriented development in the Franklin-Mulberry corridor as envisioned by BaltiMorphosis.com

Building blocks for the future

The short and affordable east and west Baltimore segments would be perfect launching pads for future extensions that could be built whenever we can afford them, and whenever we get a transit agency that is smart enough to plan them. Unlike Morgan State or Edmondson Avenue, the proposed heavy rail extensions would be located in existing rail corridors where they can be extended without wedging them into congested city streets or building lengthy expensive tunnels.
In East Baltimore, there are existing rail right-of-way corridors into Highlandtown, Canton, Dundalk, Essex, Middle River and White Marsh, so a whole tree of rail transit branches off the proposed trunk could easily be built.
In West Baltimore, the Amtrak corridor proceeds southwestward to the huge underutilized Southwestern High School site and FredHilton, gaining access to additional large potential transit markets. A relatively short tunnel mostly under cemeteries could bring the line back up to Edmondson Village and emerge from underground in Baltimore National Pike (US 40) just west of Cooks Lane, where it could eventually go all the way to Howard County. A simple branch to Security could also be built at the Beltway, simply incorporated into the inevitable Beltway reconstruction project when its untenable four level interchange at I-70 is torn down.

In contrast, the MTA Red Line could never be feasibly extended beyond Security Boulevard without running disruptively into Baltimore County's anti-sprawl urban growth boundary. On the east side, the MTA's meandering "button-hook" alignment to Bayview clearly precludes their previously proposed future extensions from ever being feasible. Moreover, the MTA Red Line's slow overall 44 minute travel time estimate already clearly slams up against the outer threshold of tolerability for a modern urban rail line.

So the MTA Red Line shoots it wad all at once - $1.8 Billion for an isolated, disconnected and unexpandable Red Line.

Next steps

The Red Line has become an ever more expensive monster based on the MTA's demonstrated illogic of starting its new transit line at square one, ignoring the need to fix what they have, and making a host of new mistakes that will somehow have to be fixed later. Their Red Line doesn't connect with or take advantage of what they've already built, and to make up for that, they feel they need to spend $1.8 billion (and rising) all at once to build something that passes muster with their own faulty logic and numbers games.

The only prudent course would be to scrap the MTA's light rail Red Line, in favor of a plan that affordably adds onto their existing heavy rail system, several miles and a few hundred million at a time, in order to grow the system in a comprehensive connected manner.

But as long as the MTA can somehow convince people like the Sun that heavy rail is too expensive, we will continue be get a fragmented series of MTA mistakes that cost too much, disrupt communities during and after construction, and need fixing as soon as they're done. It's time to end the MTA Red Line madness and instill some sanity in our rail transit planning, one smart segment at a time.


  1. I completely agree with the argument in this post. I've read other well reasoned rebuttals of and alternatives to the Red Line plan. I am thoroughly convinced that the Red Line should not be constructed as currently planned and MTA needs a massive overhaul of their Baltimore rail strategy.

    The question is: what can I do about it besides impotently piss and moan on the internet and write letters to MTA that get canned responses about "reaching out to the community" and working within the framework of federal standards? What actions can regular citizens of Baltimore and the surrounding communities take to effect real change? Proposing sensible transit plans in blogs on the internet is good intellectual masturbation, but until we can get MTA and the city and state governments listening to us, what actual good comes of it?

  2. I've read this twice and I can't find any argument for how heavy rail is cheaper to build or operate than light rail. This also ignores a) the station accessibility barriers posed (and community benefits lost) by putting stations in the middle of a 4-track heavy rail corridor away from neighborhood centers and b) the way the FTA funding processes operate.

  3. To repeat for Anonymous: Heavy rail would be cheaper because it can be built in small increments that maximize leverage of the larger existing system. Heavy rail is also generally less expensive to operate because it is faster and has higher capacity, as is already the case in Baltimore, although this must be determined on a case-by-case basis which precludes the MTA (or the Sun) from dismissing heavy rail out of hand.

    I don't know what Anonymous is talking about regarding "a 4-track heavy rail corridor". "Accessibility barriers" can only refer to the inherent ability to walk on a light rail track, which can't be done with heavy rail. Station access must also be considered on a case-by-case basis, but the MTA Red Line is generally awful in this regard, with stations in the middle of median strips and (in the case of the central station) connected to the end of a two block long pedestrian tunnel. As for the Federal Transit Administration, they have not prevented studying heavy rail.

    Schmuck, your comments are right-on and the MTA's historic failure to run a successful transit system in Baltimore, and even the general governability of our city, are prime examples, but are beyond my scope. We can only address these things one issue at a time.

  4. I recently sent a letter to the MTA and Mayors Office and was shocked to get a response that basically said- "we understand your concerns, but there is nothing you can do about it, we are moving forward with or without the support of the neighborhoods.." yes, I was paraphrasing, but that is really the jist of the response.

    So the question is, what can we do to make this a better transit system? I dont HATE the redline idea, but I strongly believe that it needs to be underground throughout, Boston Street is horrible already, putting a train on it will only make it worse..

  5. It is so absolutely frustrating that politicians, leaning on their coffers and constituents, negate the ultimate benefits of heavy rail based upon a mere handful of poorly planned, and poorly implemented heavy rail projects which took place in the late 20th century.
    For those of us with a realistic viewpoint, the key word should be "investment". The Baltimore Metro Subway was a great idea, and is a fantastic resource - if properly nurtured. The original plan, calling for a north-south and east-west rapid transit network, would have been hugely successful - had it been built to the original specs, and not compromised and "supplemented" by the current light rail. This, of course, is history, and we can only continue further.
    The problem is, politicians, especially Republicans, such as Ehrlich, negate the obvious benefits of mass rapid transit; environmental, economic, etc (look at WMATA and land values for a case study). They would much rather prefer more roads built, and an ultimately larger cost taken from the community (eminent domain, neighborhood divination, etc) and in turn attempt to pacify the public transportation lobby with miniscule concepts like BRT and, in all honesty, LRT.
    I digress, back to the original point, I am a devout proponent of heavy rail rapid transit, in any context. It statistically attracts the most amount of riders within the demographic and provides a true "rapid" transit experience - it moves quickly, uninhibited through, over, or under city streets. The benefits of a heavy rail transit far outweigh the cost, and the investment, the proper investment, carries far into the future - even if projected ridership is not met within the first month of operation.

  6. This is one of the clearest, most coherent, logical arguments I've seen for heavy rail. For the system to have any true growth and expansion potential, heavy rail is the only way.

    One of the biggest problems with light rail; IT'S SLOW. This is NOT the way to get folks out of their cars and attract them to mass transit.

    I hope the discussion can somehow continue and grow into and eventual groundswell, bringing pressure to bear on the powers that be, and that common sense may prevail.

    I can dream can't I?

    A.F. James MacArthur Ph.A.L.

  7. Government never wants to study things prudently just spend the money and run. Leave the project on another persons table to be condemned of approved. Just spend the money now. The red line is a boondogle that will blow up in the face of everyone when it found out how much it will really cost.

  8. Ah, you're after my heart with this one! It's absurdly obvious, or should be, that it gives the best bang for the buck in end to end speed, cost to produce and effectiveness when integrated into the existing transit network. In particular, it emphasizes rapid transit between Downtown, Hopkins and DC. Plain and simple: it will bring people with money into Baltimore, which is something the city is desperately short of.

    My concern is that the MTA and the Governor don't care about cost or effectiveness, which makes advocacy difficult. Perhaps even just frustrating, as no matter how good the message is, deaf ears are deaf ears...

  9. Yes, let's skirt neighborhoods by recycling heavy rail corridors or sticking heavy rail tracks next to (on?) active ones. I'm not sure how that actually works, but I guess the important thing is that, like the existing light rail you bemoan so much, the existing corridors avoid neighborhood centers. But, like basic concepts of project funding, it's a little too inconvenient to your brilliant scheme that somehow leagues of planners and engineers missed or ignored because. . . uh, I forget this part. Because the MTA is just crappy? Or is there some deeper conspiracy?

  10. While this comment from "anonymous" is essentially incoherent, it is nothing I haven't heard before and appears to be the work of an "insider" on the project. The part this person facetiously "forgets", as project insiders will readily admit in private, is that the boundaries of the Red Line project were originally drawn to such a tight corridor that most options were rejected out of hand, particularly reasonable ones. As for the overall crappiness of the MTA as an organization and the possibility of a "conspiracy", that has and will continue to be discussed elsewhere. But one interesting clue here is that apologists for the project need to stay anonymous even though they have the entire machinery of local and state government behind them, while I and other outsiders back up our comments with our full names and reputations.

  11. Recently while flipping stations on the radio I came across an interview with the MTA's new administrator. One thing that was mentioned almost in passing: MTA is already building the console for the Red Line in their rail-ops control room. How adaptable are those consoles? Can the hardware still be used if the line it's intended for is built as a different mode than the console was initially designed for? Or are they so ridiculously custom-specialized that this will have to be scrapped if the current Red Line plan is replaced with something better, something merely different, or nothing at all?
    Also, I had to post as Anonymous b/c I don't have Livejournal or Typepad or a URL or any of those other doodads listed under "Comment as".

  12. Beats me, JAJuba, but thanks for writing. I know that the MTA Red Line is already getting lots of money from lots of sources, such as fed stimulus money, with the goal of keeping as much as possible off the ledger that calculates its "cost effectiveness". Hopefully, much of it won't go down the rat hole when the Red Line dies of its own weight.

  13. One other thought: The existing Metro & light rail and these proposed Metro extensions are fine for the inner city and areas to the East/Southeast (Metro 'tree'), South (light rail), West/Southwest (western Metro extensions), Northwest (current Metro), and up the Jones Falls to Hunt Valley (light rail). What about the North/Northeast--the wedge whose edge arcs from Towson across to Perry Hall/Overlea--and the Liberty Road corridor? Those areas have substantial populations and quite a few businesses/jobs to be served. Improved bus service alone will be a plus for a while, but even with slow and steady growth at least three corridors--York, Belair, and Liberty Rds--may need something higher capacity (and faster). What do you think are the best options, both short term (ten years) and long term (30-50 years)? Also, what about cross-town services that cut across the radial lines w/o entering downtown(definitely longer-term)? (Pretend the MTA is more willing/able to build substantial new things properly and keep them going in good order afterwards, and less terrified that if they miss one chance at funding the next won't come for decades, which was true in the past but isn't guaranteed to always be so in the future. I suspect such fears may be part of why they loaded so much in the current Red Line proposal and are so emotionally invested and determined to ram their baby through at all costs)

    John (JAJuba; call me shy, but i'll stick with first name only on the Internet here on out.)

  14. Great comments and questions, John. The first answer we need for long range planning is: Where do we want to put our population growth over the next 30-50 years? With any kind of political leadership, the answer would be obvious: In the inner city. Suburban folks don't want the growth. They mostly want it as is, which is why they moved out in the first place. The recent sell-off of Towson Commons illustrates that trying to make Towson too urban has been a failure, and of course, sprawl isn't the answer either. Baltimore County is blessed to be one of the nation's least sprawled suburban areas. Ironically, the DC Metro has been a major sprawl-inducer - Frederick is now a suburb of Rockville. So let's not rush to propose more rail lines like the ones in the 2002 plan which are clearly unworkable. Let's get the basic system structure right, with a clear hierarchy of modes, and repopulate the city. In the suburbs, we'll eventually want a few high density nodes somewhere that can be well served by rapid transit (maybe something like MagLev in a few years) but I can't see it happening in places like Overlea and Perry Hall.

  15. So this article proposes a heavy line that adds a Bayview extension and a west Baltimore MARC extension of the existing green line. The favored redline alternative adds both of these as well, but also goes all the way to the social security and the I-70 park and ride as well as connect the rapidly developing Brewers Hill, Inner Harbor East and East Canton area not to mention existing high density locations in Fells Point, Inner Harbor, and Canton. I am not terrified of the moving sidewalk connecting the Redline and Green line at Charles Center. That is a good enough connection for me so I do not buy the argument that the line is disconnected. In fact, it connects with the Marc Penn Line in two places, the Camden line, the Green line, the existing light rail line, I -70, I-695, and 895. The proposed redline connects a lot more people, more locations, and has more connectivity. 44 minutes from I 70/social security to Bayview with 20 stops in between is not too bad, but for trips in the core of downtown it will be by far the quickest way to get around. Stick with the Redline