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.


  1. Have you read this article by Jarrett Walker? He argues against splitting transit lines into one-way segments.
    The Baltimore Region Rail Plan does call for a connection south from Penn Station to Charles Street, but an underground one for the Yellow Line. It also would run in both directions, which is key.

    Why is the CCC "severely redundant" but a truncated Charles Street trolley is not?

    Personally, I'd much rather see the City and MTA push the Yellow Line tunneled light rail under Charles Street than the streetcar. We can't have a transit-focused city without that north-south line.

    Also, the Red Line will connect to the Green Line Metro Subway at Inner Harbor Station. there will be a pedestrian tunnel, probably under Light Street. There's a pedestrian tunnel in Boston of about the same length (coincidentally also connecting the Red and Green Lines). It's not ideal but it works. It will be a far, far better transfer than the one between the Metro Subway and Light Rail today.

    1. The pedestrian tunnel in Boston also connects the Orange and Green Lines. It's sort of more useful for that. Anyway, minor point.

  2. Thank you for the intelligent comments, Phil. Jarrett is absolutely right - transit directional splits are "symbolic transit"! That's a great term too - symbolic transit. Baltimore has been planning and building nothing but symbolic transit ever since we quit building heavy rail. I've called it "trophy transit", where developers and city boosters can smugly say, "hey, we've got transit" while still being devoted to auto-domination. Just look at that brand new monster parking garage in the background of the light rail photo above, right next to the UofB/MICA light rail station.

    But Howard Street light rail is a total flop even though it isn't split. Baltimore is so far behind in creating a transit-oriented city that we must do everything right in major regional transit, or we fail. Other cities like Boston can get away with crappy kludges like long pedestrian tunnels between stations because they have been in place for close to a century and the city has grown up to deal with them. New York and Chicago have them too.

    But B'more's Red Line needs to do almost everything right to compete with auto-domination that has made downtown into a pseudo-suburb and the Red Line would do almost everything wrong. The proposed ped tunnel under Light Street is even longer than the old ones in other cities. There is no excuse for that in modern multi-billion dollar transit systems, except the entire MTA is just one sorry excuse after another.

    The MTA and the city don't even believe in serious connections. That's why the system is such a mess. They could easily build a decent connection between the Howard light rail and Eutaw subway through an old alleyway north of Lexington, but they don't believe in it. Heck, there hasn't even been a crosswalk across Howard Street on the Preston Street sidewalk between the State Center light and heavy rail stations for many years.

    So I'll admit it. The proposed Charles Street trolley IS symbolic transit. It would be pretty and splashy and dominate its streetscape in form if not in transportation function. That's why I'm proposing how it can be done as cheaply as possible, and as symbolically, to focus attention on the trolley's potentially powerful role in shaping the streetscape around the Inner Harbor and give a needed jolt to Howard Street. That is something that is severely needed in light of the forces that are now turning downtown into a Grand Prix course and Disney playground instead of a city. Talk about symbolism!

    It's also something that our bus systems cannot do. That is why the proposed trolley is fundamentally different from the Charm City Circulator, which in turn is totally redundant with the MTA bus lines that are running on pretty much the same streets.

    So think of the trolley as sort of a "gateway" to the city's transit-ization. I believe that is what the Charles Street organizations really have in mind, and my new proposal does it cheaper and in a more dominating way than their's does.

    Finally, it is dangerous to keep thinking of the Red Line in terms of being a piece of a bigger regional rail transit system. As it stands now, in the various BMC/BRTB/MDOT regional plans, a north-south Yellow Line as envisioned in the 2002 plan could not be built before about 2050. Yeah, some people think a world apocalypse could move that schedule up, but such would shatter the world economy so severely that we wouldn't pay the many billions it would cost anyway. We need to develop a serious regional rail comprehensive core system NOW instead of the Red Line. One that is, to borrow Jarrett Walker's term, NON-symbolic.

  3. You're right about the absurdity of the giant parking garage attached to the Fitzgerald. I wonder if all of those spaces were required under the zoning code. The new code is better about parking, but still imposes minimums.

    I still have to disagree about the Red Line alignment through downtown. It sounds like you'd rather have it follow Baltimore Street so that it could connect directly with the Green Line. First, that wouldn't achieve a major goal of this project, which is to get a stop closer to the Inner Harbor. Baltimore Street head houses just aren't good enough to get people to walk to the Inner Harbor from transit. Second, running it down Baltimore Street would require the Red Line to be 100% compatible with the existing Green Line tracks, power, etc. I know you want heavy rail, but with the projected ridership MTA would never get funding from the FTA. It wouldn't meet the cost effectiveness requirements.

    I do believe that the Red Line should have been routed down Baltimore Street west of Poppleton Station (which is now underground!). SoWeBo could benefit greatly from rapid transit. West Baltimore Street has some beautiful buildings and great urban form. Instead MTA chose to route it down the highway to nowhere just because it's there, it's cheap, and it's available to them. At least it's a dedicated ROW.

    Why would streetcars give a jolt to Howard Street? Yes, the Howard Street Light Rail is a flop, but in my opinion that can be blamed on three factors: 1) its Jones Falls alignment doesn't connect dense urban neighborhoods, 2) the vehicles are way too damn big, 3) the corridor was already in decline when it was built.

    MTA realizes that the connection at Lexington Market stinks. That's why they're moving the southbound stop from Fayette to Lexington Street. The new stop is due to be completed around March 19th. The change means that the two light rail stops and two Metro head houses will be aligned. MTA deserves praise for that. I never thought of moving people through Clay Street, but it's not like you can move the Metro head houses... so I'm not sure what good it would do.

    I sure hope the Yellow Line gets built before 2050, but it's true that the urban segment of it didn't make it into BRTB's 2035 plan. Instead they chose an extension of the Green Line to North Avenue and the Yellow Line segment to Howard County.

  4. The Fitzgerald garage includes public spaces (i.e. for U of B) in addition to serving the site itself.

    The fundamental problem with the Red Line and the entire 2002 regional transit planning process is not heavy vs. light rail but just a severe case of "connect the dots" to pre-specified destinations instead of creating a structural backbone for the whole multi-modal regional transit system. So there really is no structure. It's part of Baltimore'e excessive waterfront obsession, which has helped ruin the west side. Other than that, the demise of Howard Street is complex. Streetcars certainly are no panacea, but they can only help.

    The Lexington Market Metro station has a mezzanine level, so there is no limit to two "head houses". There could easily be an entrance to the mezzanine at Clay Street from Howard, and the topography helps a lot.

    I didn't know the MTA has decided to bury the Poppleton Station! There goes that bare-bones $2.22 Billion budget !!!!!!

  5. Good point about the mezzanine. I'd never thought of that.

    Interestingly, I heard the FTA asked the MTA to put Poppleton station underground. They said it made more sense with the difficult grade on MLK (how do you make a portal when you're already going downhill?).

  6. I think the proposed trolley would be able to overcome "symbolic transit" status if the folks in charge made sure to have it go all the way up to JHU and all the way down to Fed Hill (if not eventually all the way out to a redeveloped residential-centric Port Covington, i.e. not another fringe CBD). I can imagine a lot of JHU kids (and other folks) using it as a convenient N-S shuttle. Of course, if the proposed trolley would get stuck/slowed by traffic like the existing MTA and Circulator buses, then maybe the trolley wouldn't really make sense.

    IMO the "infighting" and endless warring over light rail vs. trolleys vs. circulators vs. heavy rail vs. light rail vs. MTA buses vs. pseudo-BRT/Quickbuses sometimes misses the point: I can understand the various technology-based arguments for cost savings, but ultimately transit technology doesn't matter nearly as much as frequency of service and on-time performance. I don't care if it's a flashy "green" bus or a rickety subway train that arrives as long as they do so frequently (5-10 minute headways max). If the transit system has bare-bones frequencies (20, 30, 40, 60 minute headways), then the flashy technology won't matter because the only people using the system will be those with no other choice:

    1. You're a absolutely right, Marc, but creating "symbolic transit" precisely IS the point to many of its promoters. The Red Line might be the most expensive symbolic transit project in world history, especially if you discount the art, chandeliers, and other adornments that are often added to other rail transit projects around the world.

      Your reminder of the basic rule about how crucial headway is (and 2 minute frequencies are even better) is really just another reminder that a near-unanimous lack of confidence in the MTA is the fundamental problem that has led to the monster parking garages, fractured downtown and competing redundant bus systems (not just the Charm City Circulator but also CollTown, Hopkins, etc.)

      This post is just my attempt to come up with a nice, reasonably priced symbolic transit line that serves a wide range of downtown interests and might eventually grow into something more. But it's no substitute for competence at the MTA.

  7. "This post is just my attempt to come up with a nice, reasonably priced symbolic transit line that serves a wide range of downtown interests and might eventually grow into something more."

    Agreed, and I think your proposed connections between the trolley line and the existing LR are great - they're common sense to me! :-)

    I just hope that an outpouring of funds on flashy technology doesn't come at the expense of decent headways. I do think the common argument that first-time transit riders are more likely to try a glitzy-looking trolley than a battered old bus is true, but if the glitzy trolleys run on bare-bones headways then I think they probably won't even succeed at being mere "symbolic" totems.

    Isn't DC sorta facing this predicament with their nearly-finished streetcar system? A lot of money was poured into tracks and fancy rolling stock, but for various reasons they've found themselves in a situation where they might not have enough trolleys to run them on decent headways:

    IMO it'd be great to have frequent trolley service, but if that's not possible then it's still better to have cheap buses running incessantly than expensive trolleys running sparingly.

  8. What upsets me the most about the MTA and their plans, is that everything is DC centered. THEY got the ICC, the're getting a purple line, and what does Baltimore get? NOTHING.

  9. While I am not an expert as many commenting on this thread certainly are, I have concerns about trolleys and Red lines based on my observations after moving here 12 years ago.
    First, the execution of pretty much everything here. The Light Rail is so unreliable that it renders it useless for someone who holds a job. It and all infrastructure associated with it is profoundly ugly so that they detract from an otherwise beautiful street such as Howard.
    Secondly, the populace. The overwhelming number of nogoodniks trolling this city dooms these types of modes as they will always become unsafe and unsightly as they become populated by these miscreants.I have not met any normal people who ride these things for fear of their lives and cellphones. The Light Rail ought to be the cautionary tale about where public rail exists in this cities abilities.
    Regarding Charles st, my family live in the heart of Mt Vernon. It has taken a long time to get off it's knees. A major construction project with crush the good yet fragile businesses and all that will be left with be Subway sandwich shops and 7-11s. Baltimore does not have the ability to build something fast enough to protect the great businesses impacted.
    I've yet to hear a good argument why any of these

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.