October 6, 2015

CPHA Postmortem Report: "The Red Line: what now?"

The report on the recent September 15th Citizens Planning and Housing Association Red Line "Summit" asks that question. The simple unspoken answer is this: Build a west-only Red Line.

The forum's inconclusive deliberations can be summed up by a comment from Brian O'Malley, repeating the "all or nothing" mantra which has plagued the transit plan throughout its 15 year history (page 8):

"Brian O’Malley noted that the state spent $280 million on just planning for the Red Line,
and it would not have made any sense to implement a parallel process as an alternative."

While it is shocking that the Maryland Transit Administration has already spent $280 Million (over a quarter of a billion !!!) on "just planning", without any shovels in the ground, it is also misleading. Although the lion's share of that astronomical sum went to study the Red Line, including a major portion of "final design", it also included the statewide planning process for the entire proposed rail transit system (including the Purple Line).

Any "parallel process" at any price would have been self-defeating. In planning, everything relates to everything else and must be analyzed together. Moreover, a comprehensive "Alternatives Analysis" was indeed a central element of the federally required transit planning process which the Red Line went through.

But since everything else was rejected at one stage or another, the proposed $3 Billion Red Line ultimately was forced to rise or fall on its own. As such, the Red Line became increasingly vulnerable as the years went on and on and on...

The basic mistake was that the MTA treated each of the various steps, starting with the 2002 regional rail plan, as a series of hoops to be jumped through. Their strategy was just to get through each hoop and don't look back.

Baltimore's rail planning history is recounted here from 1968-1998 and here from 1999-2015.

The simplest, best way to build the Red Line is to just replace its 3.4 mile downtown tunnel with a four-block leg
 on or partially under Saratoga Street, from MLK Boulevard into a Lexington Market Transit Hub,
which also serves the existing Green Line (Metro) and the Blue Line (Central Light Rail).

Each hoop was another iteration which changed the plan, but there was never any meaningful feedback to determine if the evolving plan still made sense in its overall context. Thus it became an "all or nothing" plan, which is how it has been characterized by both the Red Line's planning professionals and by its political leaders, both before and after it was cancelled by Governor Hogan and his Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn.

In effect, the MTA allowed the Red Line to design itself. They couldn't figure out how to run it without impacts through downtown, so that required a tunnel. They couldn't figure out how to tie it into the Metro, so that required a separate two-block long pedestrian tunnel (although its engineering was apparently postponed). They only found one tunnel portal location that would work at each end, on Boston Street and inside the "Highway to Nowhere", so that defined the tunnel. They couldn't cram the line into the middle of Boston Street or Edmondson Avenue, so that required reducing street traffic capacity by a third to a half, thus greatly increasing congestion and traffic spillover to other routes. They never did test the Red Line as part of any subsequent future system.

Another statement made by Brian O’Malley, Director of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (and brother of the previous governor who had supported the Red Line), was that "the Red Line was never meant to be a standalone project." (page 6)

But by killing the rest of the projects which would make up the system, first the Metro extension to Morgan State and the "Mini-MARC" rail project, then later the "BNIP" bus system plan which Governors O'Malley and Hogan both squelched, all due to perceived lack of feasibility, the Red Line became just that - a standalone project.

Meanwhile, the cost of the Red Line exploded from about $1 to $3 Billion, with no real evidence that the rise would stop there. Who would pay what share of this rising cost was very uncertain. The open-ended 10-percent local city and county share was shrouded in smoke and mirrors. The "Public-Private Partnership" (3P) was just a convoluted house of cards. Even the vaunted $900 Million federal share was illusory, as demonstrated by how a similar sum for the committed DC Purple Line seems to have vanished in the ongoing federal budget process.

In a real sense, the Red Line actually died to avoid its funding threat to the DC-suburban Purple Line, whose 3P and local funding shares seem to have at least some basis in reality. One multi-billion dollar rail transit project was clearly all the state could get, and clearly the Purple Line was better poised than the Baltimore Red Line.

Back to Square One?

This CPHA summit was essentially the fulfillment of the MTA's ongoing threat - which continued unabated under both the O'Malley and Hogan administrations - that their $3 Billion Red Line plan was "all or nothing" and the region was now forced to go back to Square One.

The MTA planners even went so far as to infer throughout their planning process that building only a piece of their Red Line plan was not even feasible. That assertion goes against every other rail plan the region ever had, other than the 2002 plan with the Red Line.

As if to demonstrate this, CPHA polled the participants of their preference for the next "Regional Scale Project" (page 11). Of the five options given to choose from, the only one which represented a remnant of the Red Line included the segment which had been specifically noted as being "fatally flawed" because it included the billion-plus dollar downtown tunnel - "West Baltimore MARC to Bayview MARC".

A vote either way on CPHA's poll confirmed this. Over 70% voted against that alternative in favor of something less expensive and more modest with buses and commuter rail, while the remaining group of less than 30% decided to vote for it anyway despite it already being continuously rejected throughout the decade long planning process.

In sum, nearly 30% wanted to save part of the Red Line, while the other 70% wanted something less expensive and more buildable. So let's give all 100% what they want.

The Simple Incremental Solution

Every regional transit plan since the 1960s has had a rail line in the US 40 West corridor. Virtually no one is against that in some form and no one has identified any fatal flaws to it. So here is the simple inexpensive Red Line solution:

1 - Build the Red Line as already planned and designed (with tweaks of course) west of the downtown tunnel for some distance, as determined by practical and economic factors. The rest of the west end to CMS/Woodlawn can be built later if so desired.

2 - Reinstate the previous MTA "Locally Preferred Alternative" plan to run the Red Line from the west tunnel portal location of the current plan (near the Mulberry/Fremont intersection) in a surface alignment to MLK Boulevard. This plan had only previously been eliminated because a tunnel portal on MLK Boulevard had engineering problems which emerged after it had already been approved.

3 - Develop a new plan for the short portion of the Red Line between MLK Boulevard into downtown. Three possible options are:

a - A short four-block connection along Saratoga Street from MLK Boulevard to Eutaw Street into a Lexington Market Metro Station Hub, which would include a two-block long "cut and cover" tunnel into the station's mezzanine (non-track) level.

b - A short five-block all-surface connection along Saratoga Street from MLK Boulevard to Howard Street, connecting into the existing light rail line, sharing its Lexington Market Station.

c - A slightly longer all-surface connection from MLK Boulevard to the Inner Harbor, terminating at Pier 6 next to Harbor East, with various options in a manner similar to the MTA's all-surface "Alternative 4A" in the Red Line's Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

A mostly surface plan has the advantage of future integration with a streetcar system which could include more than one connection into downtown and elsewhere, and far better connectivity to major downtown locations such as the University of Maryland campus and the now-vacant Social Security "Metro West" site which urgently needs a redevelopment plan. (See this 2013 Baltimore Brew article.)

Anyone totally against a light rail Red Line can focus on re-opening the planning for extending the Metro beyond Hopkins Hospital (which should never have been closed because it affects the Red Line), although the CPHA poll didn't recognize that option.

There is no reason whatsoever to start over at "Square One" on the Red Line, and the CPHA "Summit" certainly did not provide one.

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