August 31, 2015

Governor Mandel's Rail Transit Legacy

Governor Marvin Mandel, who died yesterday at the age of 95, was in many ways the father of Baltimore's rail transit system.

When he became governor in 1969, Baltimore's transit system was still being run by a private company teetering on bankruptcy. Governor Mandel presided over the state's takeover of the bus system to create the Mass (now Maryland) Transit Administration.

The creation of the MTA was highly intertwined with the movement to build a rail system for the Baltimore region.

1968 Baltimore Region Rail Plan - all "heavy rail"
In the previous year, 1968, a full six leg heavy-rail Metro system plan was adopted by the Regional Planning Council (now the Baltimore Metropolitan Council which is the "MPO" for meeting fed regs), with all legs emanating from a central hub at Charles Center. The two top priority projects were declared to be the northwest and south legs.

Many people thought this was a pipe dream, considering not only the expected formidable fiscal and political difficulties, but also the reality that there wasn't even a public entity that was remotely capable of building such a system. There had been idle talk of building a rail system for at least 50 years.

But despite similar controversy and skepticism to what recently killed the Red Line, Governor Mandel actually figured out how to get the system funded and under construction.

Mandel recognized that political support for a south rail line in Anne Arundel County was weak and that the cost of building a multi-line heavy rail transfer station that crisscrossed downtown underneath Charles Center would be extremely high. So he killed the south line and focused solely on building the 14-mile northwest line to Owings Mills, with an 8-mile interim phase to Reisterstown Plaza.

The final agreement to get this project moving was that the second line would be to the north rather than the south. It would also be a far less expensive light rail line along the Jones Falls valley rather than heavy rail through Towson which was an extension of the south line in the previous plan,

Thus Governor Mandel used his pragmatic political skill to get the Metro built, in contrast to the recent strident futility of the MTA and city's Red Line all-or-nothing "No Plan B" 15-year process.

Meanwhile, the eventual corridor of a west rail line was cemented in place by the construction of 1.5 miles of Interstate 70 (US 40) between Franklin and Mulberry Streets, with its median reserved for future transit. After that, however, the west line took a back seat, and all that was ever built is what is now known as the "Highway to Nowhere".

Also in the latter 1970s, the heavy rail west line plan, which would have branched off from the northwest Metro just north of the Lexington Market Station, was replaced with light rail. The concept was to tie the incompatible heavy and light rail lines together through an elevated "downtown people mover" system not unlike what was built to serve the Metro in Miami. The people mover would meet the Metro at Lexington Market. It would then travel eastward and meet the north light rail line at the south end of the Jones Falls valley, at Guilford Avenue and East Saratoga Street.

In the 1980s, the people mover plan died a slow death. The north light rail line plan was moved from the Jones Falls westward to Howard Street through downtown and linked to a south light rail line. Both were quickly built under the impetus of the 1992 opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Metro was then extended slightly eastward to Hopkins Hospital.

The plan throughout the '90s was to link the eventual west line to the north-south light rail lines at Howard Street.

All of this was the ultimate result of Governor Mandel's 1970s push to get the northwest heavy rail Metro built, cancelling the south Metro line and then shifting the focus to light rail.

The main constant has been that every regional rail transit plan formulated for over the past half century since the 1960s has had a west line in the US 40 Franklin-Mulberry corridor, which remains in limbo with the recent cancellation of the Red Line.

Story to be continued...

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