March 8, 2012

Trolley Phase One

Charles St Trolley Fixes Fractured Downtown

A connector (shown in orange) should be built so that the proposed Charles Street Trolley (in yellow) can return southbound to the Inner Harbor via the existing Howard Street light rail line (in blue). A future trolley connector (in green) can extend the system to Harbor East and Fells Point, among other places.

The proposed Charles Street trolley project is unfortunately perceived from some viewpoints as just another expensive project promoted by one downtown faction in opposition to all others, each with their own goals and pet projects.

The most recent example of this downtown infighting was the battle over the new Exelon office building, waged by Harbor East versus the Inner Harbor. Similarly, traditional downtown interests led by Peter Angelos have filed a lawsuit against the massive State Center project, which they see as an economic threat. The battle for West Side interests is to demand attention on the stalled Howard Street Superblock development. To others, the battle is against the perceived Disneyfication of the Inner Harbor, typified recently by the Grand Prix which is seen (among other accusations) as an opportunistic threat which allows downtown to be dominated by a high speed tourist spectacle instead of creating a livable environment for residential growth. The proposed mega-convention center arena is also part of this threat.

Battle of Transit Systems

In this political landscape, the Charles Street trolley project has run headlong into the big political push for the rail transit Red Line. The city government and Maryland Transit Administration have been tepid at best in their support for the trolley because they feel they must summon all their political capital in their uphill pursuit of the multi-billion dollar Red Line. The Red Line alliance is particularly convoluted because it also includes another two billion dollars plus for the Purple Line in Montgomery/PG Counties, as well as support from big highway interests through the common ground push for a big gas/sales tax increase and a firewall to prevent spending it on education or other lip service priorities. Big as the state's proposed gas tax increase is (6% more or roughly double the current rate), it is barely a blip of the many billions all its champions want to spend. Meanwhile, amid this alliance, the city has gone into the transit business against the MTA with their severely redundant Charm City Circulator system, further fracturing the city's transit system.

Of course, most of the parties in all this will claim that they are actually working together, or at least that their alliances overlap one or another. Most of the battles are unspoken or under the radar.

Politics Versus Actual Long-Range Planning

Lost in all this is any real focus on the city's long range. How can all this fit together? The short answer is that it does not. Harbor East is now expanding out onto the Harbor Point peninsula, where it has virtually no subsequent place to go except to keep sapping the strength of the traditional downtown. The Inner Harbor is indeed becoming a Disneyfied sideshow. The West Side Howard Street corridor is nearly dead. Charles Street is keeping its head above water, but while the Charm City Circulator is seen as their liberation from the dreaded MTA, it does not bode well for the transit system as a whole. The MTA itself is a bigger money pit than ever. And the proposed Red Line would not even connect to Baltimore's existing subway.

But in all this, the Charles Street trolley project could actually be repositioned to become the glue to bring all the competing downtown factions together. Unlike the rest of the competing monolithic dinosaur-like projects, the Charles Street trolley could actually be instilled with the flexibility to bring Charles Street, State Center, the West Side, the Inner Harbor and Harbor East together instead of creating collateral friction which is blowing them apart.

The most obvious asset of the trolley project is its visual sizzle. Nearly everyone loves the idea of trolleys - spacious accommodating vehicles lumbering through an appropriately scaled streetscape, with the warm glow of nostalgia for a more civilized time long ago. Baltimore's surface light rail remains photogenic even as it fails miserably, and artist conceptions of the proposed Red Line try to make it look as trolley-like as possible, even though its massive disruptions, regional pretensions and giant price-tag are the diametric opposite.

Yes, buses can functionally do almost anything trolleys can do, and the city's Circulator has indeed appeared to live up to its promise even while the MTA remains clueless about how to attract people to buses. And at a cost in the hundreds of millions for a modest four mile run, the Charles Street trolley is not exactly chump change.

So what we need to do is sharpen the focus of the Charles Street trolley project, to satisfy the objectives which take advantage of its inherent strengths:

1 - Minimize its cost
2 - Maximize its positive influence
3 - Make it the center of an actual coherent consistent set of planning objectives for all of "greater downtown".
4 - Make it a project that all of downtown's fractured factions can believe in and support.

A Trolley Plan Everyone Can Love

Here is a plan that meets all these objectives:

1 - Build the "core" of the Charles Street trolley northbound-only from the Inner Harbor to Penn Station/Station North - only one track, one street, and about half the length of the original plan.
2 - Connect the trolley line to the existing Penn Station light rail spur to enable southbound return travel along the Howard Street light rail line.
3 -  Build a short trolley connection along Pratt and Light Streets from Howard Street to the Inner Harbor.
Existing light rail going under Maryland Avenue bridge. This track would be realigned up to Charles Street to connect to the proposed trolley line. (The new Fitzgerald complex adjacent to the University of Baltimore/MICA light rail station is in the background.)

This would be the first phase of a trolley system that would eventually go to Charles Village. It would also be poised for extensions to many other places such as Harbor East, Fells Point, South Baltimore, Northwood, Carroll Park and wherever (see my many blog articles).

This would give the Charles Street interests the core of what they want, and the momentum to get the rest.

It would also give Howard Street a shot of instant visibility and recognition. Current perceptions are that Howard Street is in another universe from the rest of downtown, but it is actually very close to some of Mount Vernon's major attractions, including the Historical Society, Walter's Art Museum and Antique Row (which would need a new station stop near Read Street).

This would also give added impetus to the State Center project along Howard Street, which is supposed to be based on "transit oriented development", which everyone agrees is good, but has instead become notorious for its questionable financial schemes. Perhaps if State Center had attractive transit access from the rest of downtown and the waterfront, it wouldn't need so much additional financial legerdemain.

Incorporate the Trolley into the Inner Harbor's Reinvention

Perhaps most importantly, building trolley tracks along Pratt and Light Streets in the Inner Harbor would renew the city's commitment to redesign these horribly auto-dominated streets in a civilized manner. This was the city's strategy several years ago, before the Grand Prix came long and pushed the city to quickly repave the streets to accommodate 180 mph race cars, to the detriment of the long term goal of a livable downtown neighborhood.

Early conception of the trolley line between McKeldin Square (left) and the Inner Harbor on existing Calvert Street. A much better idea is to make the trolleys the centerpiece in a totally new street design for the Inner Harbor.

Efficiently accommodating a trolley line on Pratt and Light Streets is a tricky proposition, given the high traffic volumes. Accommodating bikes has also proven difficult, especially for low skill riders, which the city appears to have failed to do in both the current and proposed designs. But it certainly can be done. The city previously earmarked $100 million for the total reconstruction of downtown Pratt Street and its connection to Light Street. Accommodating the trolley line in this plan would get the most bang for the bucks.

Ever since Harbor East beat the Inner Harbor in the Exelon sweepstakes, there has been renewed lip-service to making the Inner Harbor and Downtown into a more "livable" community, but this has flown in the face of the Grand Prix as well as the mega-convention arena plan, and tacky Inner Harbor plans such as the  Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not Odditorium.

Just as a short trolley link between the Inner Harbor and Howard Street would force the various forces to think on the same page, redesigning these streets for livability would also align the various priorities.

A trolley system is also the perfect "vehicle" for creating a strong unified motif between the various parts of Downtown, the Inner Harbor and Harbor East, and emphasizing short-distance travel between them. The proposed Red Line is totally ill-suited to fulfill these objectives, since it would be buried underground with inconveniently burrowed-away station locations, most suited for regional travel such as to the Edmondson Avenue/Social Security corridor rather than short jaunts around downtown.

Such a trolley system would also work better than the Red Line in concert with the existing regional light and heavy rail lines, creating a logical hierarchical system, with far easier connections between them.

All in all, building only a modest piece of the proposed Charles Street trolley as a first phase would not only make it far more affordable, but it would also open up all the opportunities to make the system work for all of the fractured downtown interests which go far beyond Charles Street.