April 18, 2016

Howard St. rail tunnel: Engineering beats politics

A recurring theme in this city's transportation history is that politics loudly dominates the discussion, while engineering quietly gets things done. The new plan to enlarge the freight rail tunnel under Howard Street is a perfect example of this.

Engineers have apparently now come up with an efficient and sensible new tunnel modification plan that actually works to end Baltimore's crippling freight bottleneck, instead of merely supporting what the planners and politicians had been promoting.

Previously, engineers said the existing tunnel could not be enlarged. Fortunately, the new study did not accept "no" for an answer. Engineers have now concluded that the existing Howard Street tunnel can indeed be enlarged.

North portal of the Howard Street rail tunnel from the former Mount Royal Station near Dolphin Street -
now part of the Maryland Institute College of Art

The tunnel has been obsolete for decades - too small for double-stack freight containers and deemed unsafe for hazardous cargo. Politicians and planners had devised various multi-billion dollar plans to build completely new rail tunnels miles away to circumvent it, which have come to nothing. Everyone agrees this is a crucial issue to the entire economy of the city and multi-state region.

The initial engineering report lead by the Federal Railroad Administration was completed in 2005 (download here), and proposed completely new freight routes starting at well above a billion dollars (in 2003 dollars). The cost would have certainly escalated dramatically from there.

More recently in the past several years, they had taken to a cheaper "low tech" alternative of creating a truck terminal southwest of the city, where rail cars could be loaded with containers, whereby avoiding the Howard Street tunnel bottleneck.

Site after site was proposed for this truck-rail terminal, each one killed in turn by community opposition. Each proposed site was worse than the previous one, both for their transportation system inefficiencies and their impacts. The earlier suburban sites were allowed to go through the formal environmental review process prior to being killed, while the subsequent city site in Morrell Park had a very weak pretense of actually being viable in the first place

Projects die of their own weight

That's the way political stalemates for major projects usually work, from the proposed city expressway system first planned in the 1950s and 1960s, to the recently deceased light rail Red Line. Various decisions from various political committees and task forces tend to be piled on top of each other like a house of cards, making the plans increasingly ineffective, inefficient and infeasible.

Plans are seldom actually killed by anyone in particular. They just die under their own increasing weight. Somebody is usually credited with the execution, like Senator Mikulski for the expressway system, or Governor Hogan for the Red Line, or the Morrell Park community for the truck-rail terminal, but this is basically just expedient happenstance - someone in the right place at the right time.

If any of these plans had been pronounced dead at a different moment in time, a different killer could have been declared. The Fells Point expressway could have been killed later by a local developer like Ed Hale, Lou Grasmick or John Paterakis. The Red Line could have died under the governorship of Anthony Brown, who would have had just as much trouble finding the money as Hogan, or previous Governor O'Malley for that matter. The truck-rail terminal could have been killed later by its putative operator, CSX Transportation, or earlier by the suburban Elkridge community which had previously rejected its site.

The 1990s MagLev train project is another example that could be cited, allegedly killed by the communities around BWI Airport - as if such a wide-ranging multi-billion project could be killed by mere NIMBYs. That's like surmising that the entire air age could have been killed by residents of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina who protested the Wright Brothers, or the space age could have been killed by the community in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Mere assumptions

The anatomy of these dead projects is such that someone makes a defining assumption that is then accepted as a "given" which eventually leads to its demise.

For the Howard Street freight rail tunnel, it had previously been concluded that the tunnel was too shallow beneath the ground to be enlarged to current standards - that it's structure couldn't support it. Until now, everyone treated that as a given, period. Now, that has been refuted.

The basic problem is that you cannot prove a negative. If engineers say that something can't be done, it simply means they haven't yet figured out how it CAN be done. It should not be an excuse to shut the door on further inquiry. Major projects are seldom if ever that simple.

Of course, sometimes the solution is worse than the problem. Tunneling is notorious for its hidden pitfalls, such as the "Big Bertha" fiasco in Seattle that has delayed the Alaskan Way project by several years and billions of dollars. Still, engineers are the ones who are now in the process of trying to fix their own mess.

With the Red Line, the problems started when what had previously been conceived as a west-side only project from the 1960s through the 1990s became an east-west line in the 2002 plan.

After that, engineering was essentially used a weapon rather than a tool. Politically motivated promoters and planners actually argued that a west-only line was not even feasible. They said the existing Metro tunnel could not be joined by a new tunnel (even though that was the original plan). They said light rail style vehicles could not be used in the Metro tunnel (even though all rail transit vehicles are built to custom specifications). They said the Red Line could not end at the Lexington Market Metro Station because a tail track was needed (even though BWI Airport's light rail terminus does not have a tail track). Then there were endless interpretations of various convoluted federal rules and regulations that allegedly ruled out this or that.

Another example: Various people who don't understand traffic engineering have offered various plans for taming the city's traffic - usually by making congestion worse with various two-way traffic schemes or supposed "traffic calming" measures. But what the city really needs is to get a competent traffic engineer who actually knows what he or she is doing to come in and fix the traffic signal timing. That would do far more to help than all these technology-averse schemes put together.

Don't ask traffic engineers to study only one option. Work with the traffic engineers to explore the entire range of options. Engineering is a tool, not a solution. And don't frame the issues in provocative politically-charged existential terms like "cars versus people".

The city's 1950s traffic engineer, Henry Barnes, is still being blamed for the city's current traffic problems. The needs of the 21st century are far different from the 1950s, so let's move on.

Transportation isn't even the best example of how technology should be used in a positive manner. The latest famous example in the computer world is how a government-sponsored hacker has cracked the Apple IPhone encryption to aid the battle against terrorists, circumventing endless negotiation between the "suits" on both sides of the issue.

There will never be an end to the things which people will say can't be done. These are contentions, not facts, and then they merely degenerate into defining assumptions.

There will always be more issues

Of course, the Howard Street freight tunnel enlargement project is not a done deal. For many activists, safety is the driving issue, not size. They point to the 2001 tunnel fire, contending that hazardous freight should not travel through the city on any route. Or they'll say that the tunnel enlargement will not do enough to retrofit safety into the tunnel.

There is an underlying lack of trust. The city and the CSX railroad have had protracted negotiations to try to overcome this. But such issues were demonstrated yet again last year when the retaining wall gave way between the Charles Village neighborhood and the railroad track, only a mile north of the Howard Street tunnel. That's a location where the track is fully accessible to deal with problems, but the neighborhood was still highly vulnerable. The repair and reconstruction took over a year, and this area will have to be reconstructed yet again for the new tunnel enlargement plan.

Another issue is how rail service would be maintained during the construction. CSX has done such rail traffic diversions in the past for a few days or weeks, but never for the five years this project is anticipated to take. This time period through 2023 could also be concurrent to that for building a new Amtrak tunnel nearby, which also handles some late night freight trains. Above the tunnel, Howard Street itself has been subjected to decades of abuse. Will this project create a major new construction zone headache on a street that has been in a general state of ruin since the light rail tracks were installed there in the early 1990s?

Some planners had even relished the idea that the Howard Street tunnel might no longer be used by freight trains, so it could then be reused for light rail (or in my case, MagLev). This project would kill those ideas.

In any event, finding a way to finally fix the Howard Street tunnel to accommodate modern freight trains is great news, and a triumph for engineers who are too often the whipping boys for those who actually make decisions and policies.

The role of engineering is to figure out how best to do things, not to make excuses for why things can't be done. Politicians always have the last word, but all of us need to be flexible and cognizant of what the engineers can do, and not just lay down assumptions to get in their way.

April 6, 2016

A WestBalt Port Covington for the working class masses

Huge swaths of the city need to be rejuvenated. Let's put the same energy and focus to work on redeveloping these areas as is being devoted to Under Armour's Port Covington.

Huge open-ended areas of West Baltimore can be redeveloped for the common masses using the same guiding principles as upscale Port Covington. This would also apply to West Baltimore's so-far failed mega-projects - State Center and La Cite - and the impending failure to redevelop the vacant Metro West former Social Security Administration site. The notion that Port Covington is a single once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is simply wrong - designed to divert attention away from other parts of the city.

The vacant Metro West tower looks very attractive and ripe for redevelopment in the background
of the Heritage Crossing neighborhood, but the "Highway to Nowhere" is in the way and ruins the linkage.

Here's the basic remedy: Just as in Port Covington, all of Baltimore needs to plan comprehensively for big areas, with particular attention to borders and edges, and with amenities that add overall value.

New Baltimore development has gravitated to the waterfront, not just because people like water, even Baltimore's slimy semi-liquid stuff, but because it's a long continuous and mostly unconflicted open space that can thus make a great promenade. It's also an urban edge, which either becomes a magnet for activity or it becomes a desolate "border vacuum".

The Port Covington plan also calls for huge high-rise buildings next to Interstate 95, which is another urban edge that's not so attractive. But such intense development adjacent to I-95, properly designed, would frame the entire site and prevent the expressway catacombs from being a border vacuum. The plan anticipates that Port Covington as a whole will be desirable enough to add value and thus support such intense development. Hopefully, they're right.

But to the maximum possible extent, development should be driven by overall geographic value and not by subsidies. It's sheer madness the way the Baltimore gives huge decades-long subsidies to its very best locations. If the prime areas get massive subsidies, how can the rest of the city compete?

Port Covington should indeed be expensive and exclusive, although open to all joggers, bicyclists, gawkers and other visitors. Meanwhile, the working class masses should have their own "economy" version of Port Covington.

Port Covington for the masses

Proposed six-mile greenway loop - Color coded segments:
Light Blue: "Highway to Nowhere"; Purple: MLK Boulevard Greenway; Orange: Pigtown Gateway;
Blue: Carroll Park/B&O Railroad "First Mile"; Green: Gwynns Falls Greenway; Red: Amtrak industrial corridor

A great "downscale" version of Port Covington in West Baltimore could be created from the new development associated with my proposal for a six-mile greenway loop. It meets the criteria: It's big. It's continuous. It creates amenities. And it deals with urban edges and fixes border vacuums.

Most importantly, the plan is physically big - big enough to hang all the neighborhoods and all the smaller plans onto it. The actual development projects should be much smaller, unlike the prevailing mega-project mentality where the city is supposed to fire one multi-billion dollar rocket and then stand back for the development explosion.

Development for the "masses" covers a lot of housing markets, from the "bourgeois bohemians" to the wannabe upscale "creative class" to the normal middle and working classes, to the subsidized poor. There needs to be room for everyone here and lots of room for growth without gentriphobia. Planners' social engineering skills can be given a workout in blending in so-called "affordable" housing.

Until now, most West Baltimore planning has focused on very finite development sites at various locations like Sandtown, State Center, Heritage Crossing and the University of Maryland Bio-Park, Some others have languished like La Cite, State Center and the former Social Security Metro West complex.

But the West Baltimore Greenway Loop would be entirely open-ended, even while it is highly defined. It would consist of a very large number of development sites that would be drawn together by a unified planning and marketing effort, but what gets built first should be driven by the market.

Capital projects

Like Port Covington, there would be some major supporting capital projects involved with this. But the most important one would be both very big, but very easy. The city has already done and undone it several times on various occasions, with no significant problems. It just requires setting up some roadblocks.

Priority Project One: Permanently close the "Highway to Nowhere".

Why the powers-that-be have consistently opposed the permanent closure is hard to figure out. During the protracted Red Line planning process, all kinds of crazy ideas were entertained for creating "transit oriented development" and amenities which would somehow have coexisted with the massive highway. One of the strangest was a small jogging loop along the top rim of the highway around Fulton Avenue that would relate to very little. Quite a bit of planning money went into that one. It's probably still on the books but no one seems to talk about it.

Other various projects in a possible priority order could include the following:

2 - B&O Railroad "First Mile" Greenway
3 - Carroll Park Golf Course renewal
4 - Narrowing MLK Boulevard to create a linear park
5 - West light rail Red Line
6 - New replacement West Baltimore MARC commuter rail station

Development Sites

State Center and Poppleton's La Cite are prime examples of mega-projects that have languished for years under convoluted development plans that seem to end up in court more often than not. The lawsuit against State Center was finally thrown out because it wasn't filed in time, but the court took four long years to decide that the plaintiff took too long.

Nothing has happened in the two years since the court ruling either, under either the O'Malley or Hogan governorships. The private developer says they're ready to roll but the ball is still in the state's court.

State Center is served by two rail transit lines but that's apparently not enough. It's adjacent to successful neighborhoods in Bolton Hill, Midtown and Seton Hill, but that's not enough. It's plan includes extending MLK Boulevard into Howard Street, so that it would wrap around the development in a way which would actually isolate it further.

La Cite has similarly languished. It's theme was the wholesale demolition of huge swaths of housing in the middle of the working-class Poppleton neighborhood, which allegedly would create a market for subsidized upscale housing on the cleared blocks because of its proximity to the University of Maryland Bio-Park. Over a decade later, we're still waiting.

But none of this is enough. Only a big trigger like permanently closing the "Highway to Nowhere" would be enough to really get West Baltimore moving.

Once the "Highway to Nowhere" is permanently closed, perhaps the first development project that would become viable would be the extension of the Heritage Crossing neighborhood to the south, combined with the reconnection of Fremont Avenue through the expressway ditch between Franklin and Mulberry Streets. This was actually considered back in the 1990s by Mayor Schmoke's housing commissioner Dan Henson, who is now working for Beatty Development at Harbor Point.

This would set the stage for the urgently needed redevelopment of the vacant 1.1 million square foot Metro West office complex just across MLK Boulevard, owned by the federal government, which is the largest and most critical site in West Baltimore.

Heritage Crossing (background) should be expanded into what is now the dead space of the "Highway to Nowhere",
near Fremont Avenue and MLK Boulevard.

Existing "anchor institutions" need to play a role, the foremost being the University of Maryland which straddles MLK Boulevard. All of the new development needs to accommodate physical and thematic connections to their campus.

In the southern portion of West Baltimore, the Pigtown business district needs to serve a vital role. Pigtown is finally poised to take off, after years and even decades of promise. Pigtown needs a greater association with the University campus along MLK Boulevard, the adjacent fully renovated Barre Circle and Ridgely's Delight neighborhoods, and the B&O Railroad Museum/Mount Clare corridor.

The B&O Railroad Museum and Mount Clare mansion in Carroll Park are the area's world class cultural institutions, which need to play a vital role. The Southwest Partnership plan to build walls between the park, the museum corridor and the Mount Clare neighborhood needs to be scrapped. What were they thinking?

All of his might mean less attention than before on the interior areas of West Baltimore, like Union and Franklin Square, Hollins Market and the West Baltimore Street corridor. Improvements in these areas would certainly be welcome, but they would not promote large-scale change like the outer border areas would. It would be like Port Covington concentrating its attention on some land-locked interior site like the Sun printing plant instead of on the waterfront.

The same can be said for areas that are in the interior of outer areas, like Upton, Lafayette Square, Harlem Park and Sandtown to the north, and outer Pigtown to the south. These areas probably need more "topsoil" than has been forthcoming, from which to grow redevelopment. Sandtown is an illustration of this. The $100 million-plus that has already been spent has not led to better conditions for the economic market. Upton may be the notable exception, since it has a strong historical theme and nearby Bolton and Reservoir Hills and Madison Park on its side. There really is no geographic limitation to the spin-off from such an extensive broad-based renewal effort.

So here is a possible sequential ranking of West Baltimore development sites, focused on the proposed six-mile greenway loop:

1 - Heritage Crossing expansion to the south - Fremont Ave. reconnection.
2 - Metro West (former Social Security) office complex - Pine Street university connection.
3 - Mount Clare, north edge of Carroll Park
4 - Pigtown business district gateway from MLK Boulevard and Barre Circle
5 - Amtrak industrial corridor redevelopment south of Franklin Street
6 - Carroll Park Golf Course reorientation and clubhouse - including Montgomery Park.
7 - MLK Boulevard narrowing for linear university campus park and new development.
8 - B&O Railroad Museum "First Mile" plan
9 - Franklin-Mulberry "highway ditch" redevelopment.
10 - West Baltimore MARC Station redevelopment - with new Amtrak tunnel to Penn Station

Redevelopment of the north edge of Carroll Park and B&O "First Mile" from Mount Street,
looking south toward the Mount Clare Mansion - as conceived by Marc Szarkowski

The Port Covington hype campaign strikes a populist theme: "We will build it. Together." But regardless of whether their brains and our subsidies really creates such a collaboration, "together" is how all planning should be done. As big as Port Covington is, it is hemmed into a finite space by the Middle Branch waterfront and Interstate 95, so it's not really a great geographic catalyst for larger redevelopment, although its better than Harbor Point and Harbor East.

One argument that's been made is that Port Covington is a place of economic hope for a city that needs it. Other than as a rationale for massive subsidies, it should be the other way around. If the city as a whole was an economically healthy development market, it would help Port Covington.

The bottom line is that we need to reinvent and renew the entire city, not just part of it.