MTA manipulates the future again to sell its Baltimore Red Line
The Red Line will be a hard sell at the First Mariner tower in Canton, where folks are accustomed to ample parking
Text and photos by GERALD NEILY
Last year, the Maryland Transit Administration cut its proposed Red Line tunnel under Cooks Lane down to a single reversible track to make the project more “cost-effective.” The image of two trains speeding toward each other on a single track and doing a do-si-do at the last minute did not go over well. Yesterday, the MTA’s Henry Kay said in The Baltimore Sun, “Having the two tracks would increase the reliability and it also would be more cost-effective.”
What makes the Red Line appear cost-effective are their wishful-thinking guesstimates of future “transit-oriented-development.” Without the most important requirement for a cost-effective transit project — a design that integrates it into the system as a whole — you end up with under-utilized transit and “transit-oriented-developments” populated by people who never get out of their cars.
It all boils down to the MTA’s bizarro math. They juiced the ridership projection upward by 28% last year in order to reach the federal cost-effectiveness standard. The need to meet the standard is also the reason they reduced the tunnel to a single track. Yesterday, they announced ridership numbers that have been bumped up by another 14% over the original projection. This allowed them enough of a cushion to restore some of the other accoutrements that one would expect on a modern transit line . . . like a track in each direction.
In addition to deciding that two tracks are a good idea after all, the MTA has also now decided to provide full safety signalization, along with an underground crossover track which can actually be driven at faster than walking speed, yard and shop improvements and enough vehicles to allow for more spares, driving the cost up to $1.8 billion.
None of these changes, in themselves, added more riders to their projection. They merely restored things that are normally taken for granted in transit. But the MTA waited until they could juice the ridership before they agreed to provide them.
The new ridership projection is based on yet another revised population and employment estimate for twenty years into the future, and on the assumption that the new development to fulfill these numbers will be “transit-oriented.” That is, users of the new development will rely on the Red Line as a primary source of access.
Proposed west terminus of Red Line at the federal medicare “fortress” which would be totally disoriented from transit for security reasons
Until now, transit-oriented-development has been a spectacular failure in Baltimore, even while other cities have achieved significant success. This failure is well documented on Howard Street, once considered the linchpin of the city’s transit system. But elsewhere as well, in the Baltimore region, new development has been almost inversely related to transit proximity.
Owings Mills has boomed everywhere except near the Metro station. Canton, Fells Point, Key Highway and Locust Point — all with poor-to-non-existent bus service — have also boomed. Legg Mason has moved out of the tallest building in town, at the confluence of the transit system, to a Harbor East waterfront promontory. The landlord of that soon to be largely vacant building has built yet another large new parking garage on Lombard Street to try to attract new office tenants.
Alleged transit-oriented Symphony Center on Howard Street – dominated by its huge parking garage.
The MTA’s whole idea with the Red Line is to avoid relying on integration with the transit system as a whole to attract the necessary riders, and rely on future transit-oriented-development instead. That is why their Red Line hugs the waterfront instead of being built inland where it can be fed by the entire transit system. That is why it stays two blocks away from the existing subway at Charles Center. That is also why it stays in a single corridor in West Baltimore, where it is geographically isolated from potential feeder bus routes.
If you build it, will they come?
Transit-oriented-development relies on circular reasoning. Development will be attracted because of the transit line, and users will use it because that is why they located there. But the southeast leg of the Red Line has already been developed in an almost totally auto-oriented manner.
The new First Mariner tower in Canton and Morgan Stanley building in Fells Point have been built with large surface parking lots. These parking lots are presumed to be future development sites, but once users are oriented to their cars, history tells us they will not move over to transit. Other new buildings may look transit-oriented, but that is only because designers have become more adept at hiding their massive parking garages. Occupants may someday switch to 50 mpg hybrid cars in response to $5 gas, but transit would require an implausibly sudden lifestyle change which the isolation of the Red Line would not facilitate.
Back in the Day
Transit planning was not always done this way. Back in the mid 1970s, the ridership projection for the original eight-mile subway line to Reisterstown Plaza was based on what the MTAMondawmin and other stations) along with large parking lots that would attract patrons from a large surrounding area and “kiss and ride” access from spouses driving each other to the station. This lifestyle never caught on.
Back then, future transit-oriented-development was being planned for the large parking lots, but it was not relied upon for the ridership numbers. The line was promised to be cost-effective as soon as it opened and not off in some vaguely promised era, twenty years in the future. That proved to be prudent, as transit-oriented-development has still not materialized. At Mondawmin, a brand new supermarket and Target big box store still totally turn their backs to the transit station. At State Center, a grandiose new plan is still on the drawing board, and activity on Howard Street has been in reverse mode for the past thirty years.
So the MTA promised 83,000 riders a day for its first eight-mile line in its first year, and another 16,000 riders upon completion of a short extension to Milford Mill and Old Court (for a total of about 100,000). But three decades later, the ridership currently still hovers around 47,000, even after the completion of additional extensions to Owings Mills and Hopkins Hospital, as well as a light rail system that it almost but does not quite connect with.
Learning from the MTA’s Mistakes
The biggest mistake made by the MTA, then and now, is not planning transit lines that are integrated into the system as a whole.
The fatal flaw of the existing subway is that it has no feeder terminal on its east end. At its Hopkins Hospital terminus, a feeder hub was originally planned and was the basis of the justification for the ridership numbers that got federal approval, but then it was scrapped, and there has been virtually no coordination between the Metro and bus systems ever since. So the #5 bus line must chug along a parallel route to the Metro from Hopkins Hospital to Mondawmin along surface streets that can take up to 50 minutes — meanwhile the subway can do it in 12 minutes. Overall, the MTA’s rail system has taken very few buses off our surface streets.
So the MTA has largely given up on integration, in favor of promises of future development. They want to build a Red Line that hugs the waterfront and stays two blocks from the existing subway instead of tying the system together, and they want to rely on new possible transit-oriented-development in an area that is already close to its full auto-oriented build-out, instead of trying to fix their dysfunctional system to attract riders. Transit-oriented-development needs a true transit system.