March 21, 2016

Bayview Yard: A squandered plan for a MARC station

It's hard to believe this plan for a new East Baltimore MARC commuter rail station is what Johns Hopkins would actually want.

Railroad and transit stations are supposed to be at the central focal point of urban activities. But the proposed Bayview commuter rail station is hidden deep inside Norfolk Southern's freight rail yard, too far away from anything to benefit anyone.

It's all part of Baltimore's perverse pattern of doing everything possible to avoid transit-oriented development. Instead of creating sites for adjacent support development surrounded by access from communities throughout the east and northeast sections of the city, the station would be totally surrounded by freight trains that bang around to load and unload giant containers.

East Baltimore's proposed MARC commuter rail station would be located inside this Norfolk Southern freight yard
 accessible only by an overhead walkway and no regional rail line.
The Hopkins Bayview Research Park is about a half-mile south of here.

Johns Hopkins draws visitors, clients, customers and employees from a huge area from throughout Maryland's most populous corridor and Washington, DC. Hopkins has been doing everything in their considerable power to transform their world-class medical campus in East Baltimore into an "anchor institution" to transform the surrounding area in their image.

The government planners claim they're helping them, but this kind of help is worse than worthless,

The Bayview freight yard MARC Station plan is a vestige of the dead Red Line. The proposed station made little enough sense when it was attached only by an overhead walkway hundreds of feet long to the $3 Billion light rail line. It was also far enough beyond the Hopkins Bayview Research Park to send the line in the opposite direction from its original destination of Dundalk.

The Red Line died last year because even with its exorbitant price tag and poor performance, it didn't connect with Baltimore's "trunk" Metro line which serves the main Hopkins Hospital campus.

De-evolution of the 2002 plan to 2040

The original 2002 regional rail plan which included the Red Line looked innocuous enough when it was shown on its "cartoon" map along with lots of other rail lines and stations which made it look ostensibly like the DC Metro system. But reality has a way of setting in as years turn into decades of failure.

On the 2002 plan there were five new stations along the East Baltimore MARC line between Penn Station and the existing Martin/Middle River Station. That was part of a "mini-MARC" plan that was labeled "priority" in 2002, the same level of urgency given to the Red Line.

Fast forward to 2016. The latest reality is the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's new 2040 Transportation Plan. Those five stations have been whittled down to just the one - at Bayview Yard. Among the four that died was one on Broadway just north of the main Hopkins Hospital campus and their multi-billion dollar EBDI "Eager Park" community redevelopment project.

It was absurd from the outset that a commuter rail station would ever be built at that location, right between the tight Amtrak tunnel which connects to Penn Station to the west and a tight "S" curve to the east. For that matter, it was absurd that Amtrak, owner of the Northeast Corridor tracks, would ever approve five additional local commuter rail stops that would inevitably clog up their highly travelled operations all the way from Washington to Boston.

Doubly ironic is that while the latest 2040 plan reflects the fact that the Red Line to Bayview is dead, it revives the Metro extension north of Hopkins Hospital that the Maryland Transit Administration cancelled a few years ago due to lack of cost-effectiveness.

So the new BMC plan puts a commuter rail station at Bayview where there would be no regional rail service, and puts a regional rail line at Broadway where there would be no commuter rail service. What a pathetic joke!

The utter lack of cost-effectiveness is still plainly evident for all to see. The Metro extension proposed in 2002 was originally supposed to be 17 miles to White Marsh, to be completed by 2014. Then it was cut back to 3 miles to Morgan State University. Now it's only a single mile to be built by 2040 to North Avenue, at a cost of $1,692,000,000 - that's $1.7 Billion for 1.1 mile with two stations, all underground. And any extension beyond North Avenue would also be underground, so it would be just as absurdly expensive. That is the epitome of cost-ineffectiveness!

This BMC plan is just dripping with frustration. The planners lost their the 14 mile $3 billion Red Line, so their apparent revenge is to propose a one-mile $1.7 billion plan by 2040 to replace it. It's a kind of hypothetical sabotage. Shrink fourteen miles to one mile... that'll show 'em!

A simple, effective and far better plan

OK, enough of these childish games. None of us will be children anymore by 2040. Let's develop a plan that actually makes sense.

There's an ideal site for an East Baltimore MARC Station on 20-plus open acres at Edison Highway just north of Monument Street, half way between the Hopkins main campus and Bayview research campus, with excellent access to the surrounding communities throughout east and northeast Baltimore.

It's also located along the ideal corridor for a cost-effective Metro extension that would come up out of the ground at the first opportunity, minimizing the expensive tunneling which killed the Red Line and would even more inevitably kill the Metro extension under Broadway contained in the 2040 plan. Unlike the Red Line, such a Metro extension would be fully integrated into the MARC station, a local bus hub, and transit-oriented development, somewhat like a Baltimore version of the DC Metro's New Carrollton hub, only better.

"Health Corridor" Metro Extension - connecting Hopkins Hospital's main campus with Station East,
 an Edison Highway MARC Station and the Hopkins Bayview campus.

The MARC Station would be just a short hop on the Metro from the main Hopkins Hospital campus, from the Bayview campus and from the new "Station East" community. Just as importantly, all these stations would also be linked to each other.

And since the Metro would be out of the ground it could then be further expanded to White Marsh, Middle River, Essex and Dundalk with no more prohibitively expensive tunneling.

A Hopkins "Health Corridor"

Such a plan would essentially create a new Johns Hopkins "Health Corridor" which extends all the way from the main hospital campus to Bayview. It would be the ultimate completing step to the Hopkins vision for the area surrounding their main campus, but without the destruction and displacement which has already been carried out so painfully and expensively over the past decade.

Site of proposed East MARC Station under Edison Highway, looking west toward Hopkins Hospital campus.
The Station East neighborhood is in the background in front of the tall buildings.

The growth being stimulated by Hopkins already support such a plan. The first new neighborhood initiative beyond EBDI "Eager Park" is already in place - "Station East". This neighborhood just to the east, where newly renovated houses now stand next to where recently stood some of the city's most serious devastation, was named after a station that doesn't even exist yet, and isn't in the BMC 2040 plan.

But the station at "Station East" would easily be provided along an eastern Metro extension. It could be a cost-effective "cut and cover" station built into the tunnel portal instead of buried deep in the ground as the proposed stations under Broadway would have to be. This station would also support the greater Berea area to the north.

This redevelopment has already started in a responsible way, not like the wholesale destruction which occurred north of Hopkins Hospital.

Looking east from MARC Station site under Edison Highway at part of the adjacent large vacant development parcel,
 with Hopkins Bayview Research Park in background. The Metro would go between them.

Just to the east along Edison Highway is where the MARC commuter rail station would be integrated with a Metro station to serve all of northeast Baltimore, northward throughout the Belair Road corridor, as well as southeastward to Highlandtown, Patterson Park and Canton. None of this is accessible at the proposed Bayview freight yard site. A Bayview Yard MARC station site wouldn't even be easily accessible form the Hopkins Bayview Research Park.

On the other hand, the Metro could easily provide a station built into the berm between Bayview and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway (Interstate 895), easily accessible by pedestrians from all of Bayview as well as Greektown. The MARC station, Hopkins Hospital and the rest of the Hopkins Health Corridor, as well as downtown would then be a very short Metro ride from Bayview.

In sum

The BMC 2040 plan wants to spend $1.7 billion for a tiny one-mile Metro extension that doesn't even serve MARC. The plan also creates a MARC station that doesn't even serve the Metro, or much of anything else. Both Johns Hopkins and all the rest of east and northeast Baltimore would be the big losers.

It's time to stamp out such small thinking and create an integrated MARC and Metro plan that actually works.

March 3, 2016

Red and Purple Line partnerships and political football

It's fitting that Joe Flacco signed the richest contract in pro football history on the same day the state of Maryland finalized the biggest contract in its government history - to build the light rail Purple Line. And while nobody is arguing that Flacco is anywhere near the best player or quarterback in the NFL, neither has anyone claimed the Purple Line, whose giant consortium won the $5.6 Billion competition, is more valuable than the Metro transit lines it links in the Washington metropolitan area.

It's all about what needs to be done, how to do it, and who can actually do the job.

The DC area Purple Line left the Baltimore Red Line in the dust, just as the Washington Redskins surpassed the previously mighty Baltimore Ravens last year on the strength of backup quarterback Kirk Cousins, when both teams' highly paid starters, fallen Flacco and fragile Robert Griffin, were left on the sidelines.

While $5.6 Billion is a staggering commitment, it's hard to ascertain just how much money it really is or how it was calculated. The purpose of the public-private partnership is to spread out the risk and acquire the expertise that the state is unable or unwilling to summon on its own. It's sort of like renting instead of owning. The landlord is just more prepared to deal with the property and its complexities which are inherent in a deal as encompassing as this.

But as complex as the Purple Line's 36-year design, finance, construction and operating contract necessarily had to be, it would have been a mere napkin note compared with how complex and convoluted a comparable Red Line public-private partnership would have been.

There's really only one solution: The Red Line must be downsized into a manageable project, to get it going again.

The most important part of the Red Line is economic development, not just transit, as shown in this alteration
 of the MTA Harlem Park station plan to get rid of the adjacent "Highway to Nowhere". (by Marc Szarkowski)

Taking the vertical game underground

The proposed Red Line's huge risk and complexity was mostly in its 3.4 mile Red Line tunnel under downtown Baltimore, which represented roughly half of the total $3 Billion capital cost and two-thirds of the heavy construction cost of the entire project.

But that was just the beginning. The "vertical game" (to stay with football parlance) refers to far more than just whether to try to go underground in a tunnel to get the Red Line through downtown, which Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn rightly called a "fatal flaw" in the project. After all, there are many subways in the world.

But then the Maryland Transit Administration decided it had to award the engineering contracts and begin final design for this tunnel before any kind of public-private partnership was established. The Red Line process had been plodding along for over a decade and the MTA felt the need to just keep plunging forward. They knew that engineering the tunnel would take far longer than any other part of the project, while its construction would have to begin first. If they didn't begin the tunnel's engineering as soon as possible, the entire project would suffer from insurmountable delays, And of course, time is money.

So while the Red Line's timetable was behind the Purple Line's in most respects, it was ahead of the Purple Line's in design. Even now, engineering on the Purple Line still hasn't begun.

This is actually a huge advantage for the Purple Line, enabling its public-private partnership to be defined and negotiated far more cleanly and flexibly. In contrast, Red Line engineering was literally stuck in a hole.

This explains much of the reasoning behind the MTA's now infamous "all or nothing" approach to the Red Line. The tunnel needed its own commitment and timeline as a prerequisite for anything else. So now all that expense is literally buried in the ground. "All or nothing" became nothing.

The only flexibility would have come if an entire piece of the project was jettisoned, when and if money needed to be saved. That probably would have meant chopping off the transit line's east or west ends, which were the segments that actually contributed to the line's ridership in a reasonably cost-effective way.

That is what Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was rightly fearful of. He had been pressured by the state into making a financial commitment to the project with no genuine assurance that the portion of the project in his jurisdiction would actually get built.

It's like football fans who now worry about whether the Ravens can now actually afford to pay for a good defense and offensive line to support the rich Joe Flacco. But offensive lineman, even great ones like Marshall Yanda, cost a lot less than Flacco, so it makes a lot more sense to pay them their due than to cut them just to throw more money at Flacco.

The Red Line tunnel as designed would have been a mandatory and largely inflexible expense. Its only severable element would have been its pedestrian tunnel to connect the Inner Harbor Red Line Station to the Charles Center Metro Station. Red Line supporters claimed that this pedestrian tunnel was crucial, steadfastly defending it to the critics who mocked and criticized it. But should the thousands of projected daily Red Line transfer riders be forced to walk the length of more than TWO football fields to get from one line to the other? Even mighty Joe Flacco never had to do that.

But here's a hint: The extremely detailed 65% complete engineering drawings for the Red Line's tunnel showed only an outline of this pedestrian tunnel. That's expendability. Like a quarterback taking a sack to avoid a fumble.

The blame game

Like pro football, running a transit system is really all about management, and there's where the $3 Billion Red Line was truly unworkable.

The Baltimore Ravens actually originated with the State of Maryland. The state wooed the Browns away from Cleveland (that's nasty!) and built them a new stadium, which the state still owns. But the state has nothing to do with anything else about the Ravens, even how much Joe Flacco is paid.

That's the way it's going to be with the Purple Line too. The $5.6 Billion private partner will fully design, finance, build and operate the line. The buck stops there.

That kind of direct accountability would not have been possible with the Red Line. Besides the cloudy design decisions discussed above, there is the question of actually operating the line after it is completed.

The vehicles would be owned and maintained by the private consortium. But the state MTA would actually run the trains, just as with their other heavy and light rail lines and buses. This is a recipe for perpetual finger-pointing. Whenever a service problem arose, the state would blame the contractor and the contractor would blame the state. The state would try to get the contractor to fix any faults with the vehicles, and the contractor would blame MTA train operators for abusing the vehicles they're responsible for maintaining.

Trains running late could be an even bigger issue in the blame game, and poor "bottom line" ridership would be the ultimate unresolvable issue.

Yes, contract language would attempt to clarify these kinds of things, but that just opens doors for lawyers. The example the MTA has cited is that there would be contract criteria for cleanliness of the vehicles, and if they flunk the "white glove" test, the contractor would forfeit some of the state's money. But gum under the seats is far from being the most serious problem with operating a transit line. Gumming up the motors is a far greater threat.

Horizontal vs. vertical monopoly

This is all part of the question confronted by economists of horizontal vs. vertical monopolies. All transit lines exhibit monopoly characteristics, which means that a free supply/demand market is not possible to regulate or resolve them.

The DC-suburban Purple Line will be a vertical monopoly. All stages of the "supply chain" which delivers transit service will be clearly controlled by the consortium.

Vertical monopolies are strong in that management and production are controlled holistically. The operator follows orders, merely doing what it's mission says it will do. Any influence from politicians, workers, riders, etc. can be processed by the entire system. Of course, pure vertical monopolies are rare. (It would be like the National Football League owning college football.)

On the other hand, Baltimore's mass transit system is a horizontal monopoly, which means it is vulnerable to impacts on all flanks from all forces and institutions. The transit operators union has its say. The various jurisdictions have their say. The state legislature has its say, etc.

A horizontal monopoly is always in a state of flux. The latest is a proposed "scoring system" by the Maryland legislature to determine which transportation projects get built. President Obama already implemented something of that sort when he had the Federal Transit Administration incorporate community impact factors into its selection criteria for transit project funding.

Then there is the effect of separate local transit systems. The DC metropolitan area is far ahead of Baltimore in this, but Baltimore is catching up. The city now has its Charm City Circulator system which affects the MTA tremendously, although they haven't admitted it. The Uber-style cyber-taxi system is becoming a huge factor in transit and perhaps Zipcar renting will as well.

Bottom line: Downsize the Red Line

The hype called the Red Line a "game changer". But the truth is that the game is always changing faster than we realize until after the fact. A single poorly designed rail transit line is but one cog in the wheel of change.

The biggest question in any public-private partnership is: What happens if it fails? In the vertical monopoly Purple Line, it's the relatively simple matter of finding a way to adjust the game to achieve the desired results. That customarily means shoveling more money at the problem, but at least it's do-able.

The Baltimore MTA has been shoveling money at its problems for decades, with a spectacular lack of success. All kinds of solutions have been proposed, as if some knight in shining armour such as moving to an all-powerful regional authority could fix the problems. But it just doesn't work that way.

The goals are nebulous enough as it is. What Baltimore really wants is to make transit a potent economic development tool. How do we measure that?

There is really only one feasible direction we can go. The Red Line must be downsized and refocused into the smallest feasible project which is capable of moving the city and region toward its goals, while accommodating future expandability to continue expanding those goals.

At the very least, that means building a Red Line which emphasizes linkage with the rest of the transit system and with community development. That means getting rid of the 3.4 mile downtown tunnel.

It means a clearer and more straightforward public-private partnership. It probably means getting rid of the local government funding shares, which was so unpopular it devolved into smoke and mirrors. Local money should be directed instead to related station-area community projects.

This certainly means the Red Line won't be built immediately (we already knew that) so the preparation of the line's corridor for the future can and should proceed first. That could mean getting rid of the "Highway to Nowhere" and creating a viable corridor development plan which includes the re-use of the massive Metro West former Social Security complex.

A multi-billion dollar public-private transit partnership is complex, but redeveloping a city is far more important and rewarding.