September 7, 2015

Red Line Obituary 1999-2015: So What Happens Next?

The decision of where a west transit line would be built, if anywhere, was made nearly a half century ago in 1967, when a 1.5 mile swath of West Baltimore was condemned and quickly destroyed for what is now the "Highway to Nowhere", with the median reserved for transit. A rail system plan was completed one year later in 1968, following the "hub and spoke" model used for virtually all modern rail transit systems.

The previous post chronicled the history up to 1999, at which time the present regional rail system was already in place (except for some light rail double tracking).

Now comes the history of the birth, life and death of the Red Line, from 1999 to the present...

In 1999, a new 20-year statewide transit plan was completed with a clear and do-able future financial framework for the west line.

But then only one year later in 2000, that plan was cast aside for a financially unsupported multi-billion dollar pipe-dream that is the current Baltimore Region Rail Plan, which was the birth of the now-defunct Red Line and many miles of even more unattainable and infeasible rail transit.

Now in 2015, we need to look back at 1999 in order to salvage the dead-end planning which has taken place since then that has led to the current stalemate.

1999 Transit Plan

The 1999 plan's recommendation was that overall transit funding should be increased by 40% (it has actually increased far more than that), but funding specifically for "capital expansion" should be decreased by 30% from previous levels, in order to emphasize improving the operation of the existing facilities and services. The study concluded that doing this would nearly double transit ridership by 2020 (only four years and four months to go!)

Three alternative capital projects were defined for the Baltimore area: (1) A west line from Downtown to Security/Woodlawn, (2) A downtown light rail loop which would extend the existing Howard Street-to-Penn Station line around the east side of downtown via the Jones Falls corridor, then back again via Pratt Street, and (3) A Metro extension from Hopkins Hospital toward White Marsh.

Soon thereafter, the MTA and the City concluded that the light rail loop should be built first, since this would best fulfill the downtown distribution and circulation functions for all the rail lines and the system as a whole.

But almost as quickly, they realized such a surface loop would be too slow and circuitous to serve these functions. The Citizens Planning and Housing Association then organized a campaign called "Northeast Now" to make the Metro extension beyond Hopkins the top priority.

But instead, only a year later, the powers-that-be decided to scuttle this three project wish-list with its de-emphasis on capital projects, and go back to the drawing board to create an entirely new comprehensive regional rail system plan. The resultant multi-billion dollar capital plan was a major departure from the 1999 plan.

2002 Plan and the Birth of the Red Line

Thus in 2000-2002, the Red Line was born. After over three decades, it was the first working rail plan to abandon the unified downtown hub concept. Instead it called for the west rail line to continue eastward through downtown in its own right-of-way, rather than being built as a west-only project.

This 2002 plan ambitiously called for the Red Line to be built from its west end eastward through downtown to Fells Point, while simultaneously building two other high priority rail projects: a Metro (Green Line) extension from Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State University, and a "Mini-MARC" (Purple Line) with five new stations providing local service eastward from Broadway (just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital) to Middle River (the existing Martin Airport MARC Station). The initial cost estimate for all three projects combined was $2.5 Billion.

But the latter two projects (other than the Red Line) were later apparently found to be infeasible. The Mini-MARC line was quietly abandoned, perhaps because Amtrak owns the tracks and surely would not want to see their New York-to-Washington service further bogged down by five new station stops in this highly bottlenecked corridor.

The Metro extension to Morgan began the same full-blown federal funding planning process as the Red Line, but its early cost effectiveness scores were so terrible that the study was abruptly cancelled.

With those "high priority" projects cancelled, the rest of the 2002 plan essentially was dead as well. Red Line supporters had to change their mantra from the being part of a complete system to being the single critical project that would save the Baltimore rail transit system.

Thus the Red Line became "all or nothing".

The Red Line Goes It Alone (2003-2015)

The next realization was that Fells Point was not an appropriate east terminal point for the Red Line. This opened a new debate because the original ultimate plan had two termini, one branching southward to the Canton waterfront and the other swinging northward to Bayview, then further southward to Dundalk/Turner's Station.

The initial idea to resolve this was to combine both alignments into a surface loop that would take the south route from Fells Point via Boston Street through Canton, then northward on Conkling Street to Highlandtown, then back to Fells Point. This was rejected.

The final resolution was a big zig-zag. The line would follow the south alignment via Boston Street, then swoop all the way north to Bayview and then south again to Dundalk/Turner's Station. But then, the Bayview to Dundalk leg was left off the "priority project" (probably forever, since it would be so slow and circuitous).

In this early stage leading to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, there was surprisingly little controversy. Most people were united in wanting maximum tunneling to minimize impacts and traffic conflicts. But gradually, the Canton (east side) and Edmondson Village (west side) communities realized the cost pressures meant they wouldn't get their respective tunnels under Boston Street and Edmondson Avenue.

And the MTA didn't want to play favorites. Even the west-side Cooks Lane tunnel was kept to a single reversible track in the initial "Locally Preferred Alternative" to keep the total project cost well under $2 Billion, which was considered a major price-point threshold.

The LPA plan also included a total revision of the ridership data that had previously been used to compare and reject all the other alternatives. Projected daily ridership was thus suddenly increased from 40,000 to 60,000, making the LPA plan look very much more cost-effective than before. (Since then, various adjustments have been made to bring the number back down to 47,000.)

Transit advocates were uniformly critical of a single track Cooks Lane tunnel, citing the reliability and delay problems suffered by the existing light rail line when it was originally built with large single track segments. Add to that the safety threat of running a reversible track in a tunnel with a sharp blind curve.

The MTA never retracted their contention that a single track tunnel would be just as safe and viable as a two track tunnel, but they abandoned their one-track design anyway while allowing the cost estimate to go over $2 Billion.

However, the MTA stood firm on no tunnels through Canton and Edmondson Village. East-side Cantonites continued to protest, but west-siders largely became resigned to a surface Red Line squeezed onto Edmondson Avenue.

Next, the MTA discovered they needed to extend the downtown tunnel under Fremont Avenue because of engineering problems, to which the community filed a lawsuit.

Then leading developer John Paterakis forced the MTA to move the Harbor East Station away from Central Avenue, the major north-south spine into the huge Harbor Point complex. This required the redesign of the entire tunnel under the Inner Harbor.

You Only Die Once?

As a result of all this and ensuing delays, the Red Line's cost estimate climbed to mere dollars away from $3 Billion, another major psychological price-point. This price tag was certain to rise even more because of further delays (even before Hogan was elected Governor), and the fact that the various project responsibilities and cash flows had never been fully itemized. For example, the hoped-for $900 Million federal funding was programmed in only $100 Million annual increments, which doesn't add up for a six-year project with very heavily front-loaded costs for expensive tunneling.

In addition, the 10% local share pledged mostly from the city government included many costs that were not in the totals. Most uncertain of all, the public-private partnership would have been extremely complex and was fraught with mystery.

All this made it impossible for the MTA to prepare the most important document to make the Red Line a real project - the Full Funding Grant Agreement.

Pete Rahn no doubt learned far more than all this during the brief time he had been Governor Hogan's Transportation Secretary in early 2015. Originally, he said he intended to make a decision on the DC suburban Purple Line prior to studying the Red Line.

But the Red Line apparently looked so bad to him that he didn't see the point in waiting to kill it, and the process which he used to save the Purple Line would clearly not work for the Red Line. The city's cost share was already "smoke and mirrors" and Baltimore County had already balked at contributing real money. The only major cost that could clearly be cut was the two block long pedestrian tunnel to the Metro. The Purple Line's private sector partner would clearly have top responsibility for design, construction and operation, unlike the convoluted web slowly being woven for the Red Line.

When Mr. Rahn cited the Red Line's 3.4 mile downtown tunnel as its "fatal flaw", it made the point that cost problems alone were sufficient to kill the project in the absence of a Plan B, since this tunnel alone comprised approximately half of the total construction cost.

Red Line Autopsy

In 1999, Governor Glendening presided over an incremental plan that created a sound financial basis for transit growth, but then almost immediately the hype-meisters pushed that strategy aside in favor of the indulgent 2002 comprehensive regional rail plan. Since then, the Red Line has been dieing a slow death.

Governor Ehrlich's administration saw problems, but tried to fix them by simply promoting bus rapid transit instead of rail, not by addressing the structure of the system. Then the O'Malley administration doubled and tripled-down on the Red Line, even while overseeing eight more years of chronic delays.

The downtown tunnel was the immediate cause of death, but the 2002 plan was the underlying cause. The Red Line's fatally flawed tunnel existed due to the 2002 decision to build an east-west line separated from the rest of the rail system. The other rail lines in the 2002 plan proved not to be feasible, leaving the Red Line with no Plan B.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was particularly confounded by this. She had steadfastly bought into the "once in a generation... all-or-nothing" hype, but then when the Hogan administration killed the project, she vowed that her staff would formulate and negotiate alternatives. This led to a "working session" with the state in August, at which time she and the other Red Line supporters reneged on her offer of alternatives and instead merely volleyed the challenge back into the state's court.

The years of preaching "No Plan B" thus backfired,

The Red Line is Dead - Long Live the Red Line

The Red Line's problems are clearly fixable: As MDOT Secretary Pete Rahn said, the downtown tunnel was the Red Line's fatal flaw. So just get rid of the fatal flaw.

The work of the past 15 years can be salvaged by building a west-only Red Line as it was planned from the 1960s onward to 1999, with additional linkages to the rest of the system that comprise Plans B, C, D and onward until Baltimore has a rail transit system that actually works.


  1. Building a west only light rail Red Line makes little sense, because you're going to run into the same problem with having to tunnel under Cooks Lane and essentially build a brand new light rail station under Lexington Market metro.

    A metro extension to West Baltimore would make more sense, and could be tied into the the current tunnel, eliminating the need for the parallel route. Make a connection at Lexington Market (shorter tunneling) or Charles Center (maybe easier to engineer?) would use the same infrastructure.

    At West Baltimore a transfer hub could be made, above ground and so much less expensive, to connect Metro, MARC, and buses. A surface light rail could be built west from there.

    Too bad the 1999 plan wasn't the one moved forward. Probably would have opened a few years ago.

    1. Thanks for the comment, CB! I've agreed with you about the Metro extension. I made the case in this blog post from back in 2010 -

      The common point of what you and I are (and were) both saying is to build the system in affordable, feasible, manageable phases. The MTA Red Line could not be done that way. Since it was "all or nothing", they had to kill the whole thing. Blame the MTA.

      If your approach is taken (and I'd be happy if it was!), it would be best to start with the east Metro extension beyond Hopkins Hospital since extending the existing line is not an issue there. Then decide what to do on the west side.

      One more point: My proposed Lexington Market Red Line station would not be a "brand new" station. It could be built as cheaply as necessary, without new escalators, elevators, or even any tunneling at all. There would also be another surface station just to the west between MLK Blvd. and Pine Street to serve the University of Maryland and Metro West (former Social Security) redevelopment. This 4-5 block Saratoga segment would be the only fully new engineering necessary for the entire line.

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