July 13, 2012

Red Line to Harbor Point

Preparing for a Red Line that actually works
- Here are eight feasible non-rail (plus streetcars) projects
 which would prepare Baltimore for a functional transit line and vice-versa

Proposed Downtown Bus Tunnel could serve the Red Line when it's ready

With the recently announced major expansion of the Harbor Point development, the irrelevance of the MTA's multi-billion dollar decade-old Red Line plan is now assured. The Red Line is too expensive to build. It doesn't connect to the subway. And now we discover that it wouldn't even decently serve the new waterfront development growth it was contrived around. Instead, where every step beyond the station platform is critical, the MTA Red Line would be three to eight blocks away from Harbor Point. With the Inner Harbor reeling and Canton just a stable 1980s auto-oriented backdrop, Harbor Point's new expanded development plan puts as much development as far away as it can from its nearest Red Line station, making it just another plan for an expensive transit hole in the ground.

The Red Line was designed a decade ago to supposedly transform Baltimore. Now the Red Line has been left stalled. It was folly to expect Baltimore's redevelopment to keep waiting around for years and decades for a Red Line that will never be and won't help anyway.

So here are eight major projects which would actually prepare Baltimore to rebuild itself around a well-functioning transit system, and to incrementally and eventually build a Red Line that fits in and works, as opposed to a Red Line that could only be built in one multi-billion dollar swoop and would have to be forced into and under an alien landscape.

These eight projects would prepare the areas around the Red Line to be attractive and prime transit oriented areas, whether the Red Line was built or not. Then the Red Line could be built in small incremental manageable and affordable chunks. It would be built only where and when it is feasible, with little or no additional tunneling unless justified by real future events.

The alignment would be fairly close to the MTA's, except it would come much closer to the existing subway in the center of downtown, as well as to Harbor Point. Other inner city areas would be served much better and more suitably by streetcars, including the Inner Harbor and Canton. Bayview would no doubt be far better served by a heavy rail extension east of Hopkins Hospital.

It would no longer be a matter of putting faith in planners who insist that "if we built it, they will come", when the MTA's past track record has inspired no confidence whatsoever.

Red Liners know they have problems

About five years ago, one of the Red Line's primary authors said that if it was not built soon, it would be another generation before we got more rail transit. Well, Red Line construction is now even less in sight than it was then, so he appears to be right. "Another generation" would put the Red Line horizon at about 2030.

The price tag continues to move out of sight. Engineering difficulties recently required the proposed Red Line tunneling to be extended under Fremont Avenue in West Baltimore instead of rising to a surface alignment along MLK Boulevard. This will certainly drive up the unmanageable cost even more.There is no political will at the state or local level to do it. 

Here's the basic solution: Other major projects need to be identified which can be built along the Red Line corridor to improve the environment and facilitate future growth, whether the Red Line is eventually built or not.

Planners recognize the need for this strategy, but they have only done it in a very half-hearted way:

1 - The retaining wall at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere" (Pulaski Street between Franklin and Mulberry) was finally demolished to make way for the Red Line. This was fraudulently hyped as the elimination of the entire highway, which was mere wishful thinking. The entire highway needs to go, but it needs to happen now, not taken as hostage to their Red Line. The next big event in the hapless highway's half-century history will be the Social Security Administration's impending abandonment of its massive Metro West complex. West Baltimore and Downtown need to be ready, even if the Red Line isn't (and never will be under the current plan).

The gorgeous Gwynns Falls looking toward Leak in Park from the Edmondson Avenue bridge, to be widened to accommodate the Red Line. The obsolete Hilton Parkway interchange is adjacent to the left, which should be eliminated to create community access to this beautiful scene, as should the huge Cooks Lane/I-70 stub interchange which also impinges on the park.

2 - The city plans to widen the Edmondson Avenue bridge over the Gwynns Falls and Hilton Parkway to make room for a future Red Line. In an ideal world, this cost would be borne by the MTA, but the city will instead pay it to keep the cost off the Red Line books.

3 - The city plans to build a "Boh-Donnell Connector" in Canton to help create the Red Line right-of-way. This is probably a worthy project in that it encourages through traffic to use the O'Donnell Street bridge over the railroad tracks, and then use Boston Street away from the community. But it is directly at odds with the plan to narrow much of Boston Street from two to one lane in each direction to squeeze in the Red Line. So what the "Boh-Donnell Connector" would really do is make Boston Street even more congested and encourage the planned Canton Crossing development to be even more oriented to I-95 and the suburbs than it would be otherwise.

Eight projects to pave the way

So here are eight recommended projects to truly pave the way for a Red Line - not the MTA's Red Line, mind you, but one that would truly prepare for Baltimore's comprehensive transit-oriented future. This far less expensive Red Line would traverse a brand new transit-oriented West Baltimore, would share a short new downtown bus-rail tunnel, would end up right at the front door of Harbor Point and Fells Point, and much more, all built when the city and transit system are ready for each other.

The following eight projects have benefits that greatly augment but far transcend the Red Line:

1 - Build a Downtown bus tunnel - This is what Seattle built to prepare for its eventual light rail line. In Baltimore it could be built under Saratoga Street starting near Greene, to Fayette Street near Gay, with short underground passages to the Charles Center and Lexington Market subway stations and escalators to the Howard Street light rail line. By being as short as possible, it could accommodate buses and facilitate transfers from many different directions, truly revolutionizing the MTA bus system. (See Brew story from Oct 2010)

Landlocked "Highway to Nowhere" median strip looking toward Downtown Social Security complex. Such wasted space !!!!!

2 - Tear up the "Highway to Nowhere" to facilitate new development - Replace it with a downsized highway and rail right-of-way to intimately orient transit to development and meet real-world traffic needs. Key anchor connections are the Social Security complex, Heritage Crossing, and the MARC station - all currently chronically isolated by highways. (See Brew story from April 2011)

Hilton Interchange Replacement Proposal - Yellow is new parkland with parking underneath, Green is new trails, Purple is consolidated Hilton Parkway thru underpass, Red is future Red Line on Edmondson Avenue

3 - Transform the obsolete Edmondson Avenue/Hilton Parkway interchange - (not just widen the overpass)  - to create new Gwynns Falls parkland integrated with Red Line needs, with hidden parking embedded into the topography. This would not only be a tremendous asset in connecting the community to its surrounding parkland, but it would also make this point a suitable Red Line terminus to enable the disruptive Edmondson Avenue section to the west to be built later or even cancelled. (See Brew story from March 2009)

Proposed Red Line thru Harbor Point, from Fayette Street (upper left) to Central Avenue (center) to edge of Fells Point (lower right). Proposed streetcar tracks in yellow.

4 - Design Harbor Point to accommodate a surface Red Line terminus right on the site - A minor modification to the recently announced Harbor Point site plan would enable the massive development to be truly oriented to a Red Line on the streets just outside its front door instead of buried in isolation under Fleet Street three to six blocks away. The Red Line terminus would then be adjacent to the intersection of Thames and Caroline Street, making it a great gateway to Fells Point. (See blog article from February 2012)

Central Avenue looking south from Pratt toward Harbor East and Harbor Point

5 - Rebuild a civilized transit-oriented Central Avenue - Central is currently the prime but ugly formerly industrial "no man's land" between Harbor East, Fells Point, Little Italy, Jonestown, Old Town, Washington Hill and Hopkins Hospital. Its crumbling underground stormwater tunnel is largely to blame. Rebuilding that would create a prime opportunity to prepare the street for a future surface Red Line instead of tearing up Lombard, Fleet, and Boston Streets for a far more expensive, disruptive and isolated Red Line tunnel.

6 - Build a streetcar system - The Red Line does a very bad job of attempting to simultaneously emulate both a streetcar system and regional rail system. Building on the excellent Charles Street Trolley study, Eastern, Fleet and Pratt Streets (but not Lombard) would be excellent candidates for a streetcar system that would be conveniently optimized to serve shorter trips. The MTA's Red Line would use the same kind of slow, diminutive low capacity streetcar-style vehicles which are not appropriate for the extensive inconvenient user-unfriendly tunneling that would make it as expensive as many heavy rail lines. (See blog article from May 2007)

7 - Reinvent the Inner Harbor again - A streetcar system would be a wonderful urban design theme for redesigning and redefining the oppressively wide Pratt and Light Streets in the Inner Harbor as livable environment. A few years ago, there was momentum to actually reinvent these streets, until the street-oriented retail pipe dream ended with the closure of Best Buy and Filenes's, the weird new Harborplace Ripley "Odditorium", the cheap new half-fast bike sidewalks, and of course, the Grand Prix making the streets safe for 180 mph race cars. 

8 - Expand Leakin Park into Baltimore County - The MTA's Red Line would pave over even more of the suburban countryside that is already occupied by the grossly excessive stub of Interstate 70, stunted at the edge of Leakin Park. This entire highway needs to be replaced by a modest narrow parkway, which would create much new parkland. A Red Line should be designed that would tuck unobtrusively into the resultant greenery of an expanded Leakin Park, hopefully in a way that would make the expensive disruptive tunnel under Cooks Lane unnecessary. (See Brew story from October 2011)

After all of the above, the MTA could still build the Red Line in accordance with the 2002 plan, but the folly of continuing to attempt to do that will become increasingly obvious, even to them.