February 6, 2012

A Red Line plan to Exelon and Harbor Point
The Red Line's east terminus could be shifted to the heart of Harbor Point (lower right), at Exelon near Fells Point. Proposed streetcar lines are shown in yellow, existing subway in green and light rail in blue.

The recent decision to build the massive Exelon office complex in Harbor Point confirms downtown's strong eastward shift, and has rendered MTA's rail transit planning largely obsolete. Even more, it is a sign of the end of downtown as the central hub of a larger region. Major companies are no longer choosing downtown because of regional geographic advantages. While it is as necessary as ever for downtown to be the connecting hub for transit lines, suburb-to-downtown commutes represent a increasingly insignificant share of all trips.

In 2009, I devised a plan which anticipates and reflects for this. It would cost far less and do much more than the MTA's multi-billion dollar Red Line plan.

The MTA's Red Line plan is increasingly irrelevant

The elusive and fickle focus of downtown activity has been and still is a major problem for transit planners, and is probably the number one factor in Baltimore's failure to grow around its transit system. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Howard/Lexington retail district was downtown's most active place, and was an extremely important station location in the proposed rail transit system. But by the time the first rail leg was completed in the mid '80s, the retail district was already in serious decline. The MTA then doubled-down on its bet with the light rail system focused on adjacent Howard Street as well, which only made the decline even more precipitous.

The Red Line, originally devised around 2001, scrupulously attempted to avoid this problem by locating in the hottest areas along the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Canton. But now even those areas are getting far less attention, with the Inner Harbor spurned by Exelon, and Fells Point and Canton in a state of stable low-growth maturity, with Canton Crossing being built in a very auto-dominated manner.

Transit-oriented development has been a consistently auspicious flop in Baltimore. It actually appears that developers go out of their way to avoid transit. And Exelon's recent decision to build at Harbor Point, on an isolated peninsula that is about as far away from the transit system as they could get, is perhaps the best example yet.

The new Morgan Stanley building near the proposed Exelon building at Harbor Point, auto-oriented and isolated from the rest of downtown.

But to some extent, it's not just that developers are just avoiding transit, but that they are avoiding the whole traditional concept of downtown in the region. The suburbs are increasingly self-sufficient and auto-dominant, not tied to the classic suburb to downtown commute. Both the city and the suburbs are increasingly tied into a much larger super-region which revolves far more around Washington DC and even the northeast corridor of the U.S. as a whole.

As with Morgan Stanley and Legg Mason, Exelon saw no significant advantage to being in the hub of downtown, just as UnderArmour similarly decided in its recent decision to locate its corporate campus headquarters in Locust Point, again about as far from transit as possible.

Increasingly, downtown is just an environment and a lifestyle, based on the unique attributes of the waterfront, historic architecture and high density interaction, but not the hub of anything.

Regional access is still important, but mostly just to create the linkages of a true transit system, not as an end hub in itself. It is important that the rail transit system have a true backbone, to create a logical organizational structure. Downtown is the place where transit riders transfer between the system's bus and rail lines. The system's rail "trunk" must be as fast and efficient as possible. The Mondawmin Metro Station is the system's one very successful example of this, where myriad bus lines converge with easy transfers to the much faster and more efficient Metro. But the rest of the system fails to compliment this.

The MTA's proposed Red Line would only make matters worse, not even connecting to the Metro except through a two block long pedestrian tunnel. It's also too slow for such a long line (over 14 miles) as it meanders between far east and west Baltimore.

The fact that the rail system does not even serve Harbor Point as the new downtown growth center further adds to the problems. And the isolation of Harbor Point emphasizes its lack of spin-off development opportunities. Harbor Point would be about a third of a mile from the closest Red Line station, and that is contingent upon building a controversial Central Avenue bridge which would cut off the Living Classrooms campus from the harbor. If the rail system itself is not a catalyst for redevelopment, as demonstrated on Howard Street, and isolated Harbor Point is not either, one of rail transit's biggest selling points of being an agent for growth vanishes.

The Red Line tries to serve the system and to enhance development opportunities, and ends up doing a very poor job of both.

Running the Red Line straight into Harbor Point instead

The solution is a rail transit plan that puts connectivity first, then relies on a system hierarchy from fast heavy rail to medium speed light rail to local streetcars to create and support development opportunities, and acknowledges that what was once known as downtown is now too dispersed to serve in any other way.

In such a plan, the Red Line would be located in a very short tunnel under Fayette Street, where it would be close enough to the Charles Center Metro station and Howard/Lexington retail district and light rail line for optimum connections. The very short tunnel would extend only from about MLK Boulevard to Gay Street (near City Hall), greatly reducing its cost and increasing its flexibility. It could even be built to accommodate buses as well, like the Seattle system, as well as an extension of the existing central light rail line from Penn Station through the Jones Falls corridor.

East of the tunnel, the Red Line would turn into Central Avenue, and proceed to a terminus in the heart of Harbor Point, immediately adjacent to Exelon, the recently completed Morgan Stanley building and the west edge of Fells Point near Thames Street.

Sojourner-Douglass college is one of a few signs of life along Central Avenue near Fayette Street, looking south toward Harbor East and Harbor Point along a potential Red Line alignment.

A whole new transit-oriented corridor would open up along Central Avenue between Sojourner-Douglass College and Harbor Point. The proposed bridge into Harbor Point could be designed as a high arch for transit   vehicles rather than cars, which would create a distinctive attraction and still let Living Classrooms boats go underneath. Pedestrians could also be accommodated secondarily.

The portion of the Red Line from the Inner Harbor to Canton, Highlandtown and Bayview would then be built as a streetcar line, linked to the proposed Charles Street Trolley system, as well as to the light and heavy rail lines, with the alignments optimized for the increasingly important localized rather than longer regional trips. As such, the streetcars would far more conveniently traverse Pratt Street and Piers 5 and 6 directly through the Inner Harbor rather than buried under auto-dominated Lombard Street.

All of this would cost far less than the $2.2 billion Red Line, because of the drastic reduction of counterproductive tunneling, and serve far more. And perhaps even more importantly, the system could far more easily and feasibly be built in affordable stages rather than all at once.

Such a system would reflect what most people, including Exelon and their local Constellation Energy division, already realize - That downtown is increasingly an environment and a lifestyle rather than the traditional geographic entity, which can only capitalize on transit which is integrated conveniently and attractively into the landscape, rather than built into expensive, outmoded and isolated tunnels such as with the MTA's proposed Red Line.


  1. This is the best Red Line plan I've seen yet.

  2. "an auspicious flop"? that's what we call an oxymoron.

    You might do better coming up with more "auspicious" ideas by proposing ways to enhance the existing Red Line plans, such as a streetcar, or maybe even re-routing of the Circulator, on Caroline St. This would connect the Red Line to the Living Classrooms Foundation and Harbor Point. That is, of course, if you're opposed to walking the last third of a mile to reach your destination from transit and choosing to leave your car in the driveway.

  3. Yes, it is an oxymoron. A while ago, one high ranking city official even complemented one proposed project by describing it as "transit oriented development without the transit". The development is fine. It's the transit that's the problem. And now you're accepting mediocrity by saying that a third of a mile is close enough for the Red Line. Of course, I'm not opposed to walking, but not as an excuse to build bad transit.

    I'd call the plan I've outlined here an "enhancement" of the existing Red Line plans. It's actually fairly close to a bunch of concepts the MTA has already considered, but never as part of a logical and comprehensive planning process. The MTA has studied pretty much these exact alignments under and along Fayette Street and Central Avenue. They also studied a very similar surface alignment along Pratt, Fleet and Boston Street.

    However, big problems with the MTA's planning process included: (1) never considering streetcars at all, either as part of the Red Line or a hierarchical system, (2) rejecting any Fayette or Pratt alignments as not serving enough area, when it is actually possible to cost-effectively do both, (3) juicing the ridership figures for their favored plan AFTER ruling out all others, and (4) suffering from the delusion that they could build their plan for something in the billion dollar range, when it has now escalated to well over $2 billion and rising.

    To sum up my proposed strategy: Build the most cost effective parts among the original Red Line options, including a short tunnel under Fayette from MLK to Gay, and build the rest as a streetcar line. This would give Baltimore the best of both at a lower cost than the MTA plan.

  4. Where does the Orange Line go when it splits off of the Red Line at the JFX? Penn Station?

  5. Yes, Penn Station, and then northward onto the existing light rail route up to Hunt Valley and maybe someday another line to Towson.

  6. This is a very comprehensive and efficient plan. I'm glad someone is out there thinking forward.