January 30, 2017

Hopkins should expand into Bayview rail yard

Recent events point the way for the next expansion of Baltimore's ever-growing Johns Hopkins health care empire. The Hopkins Bayview Research Park should expand into the 70-plus acre Bayview rail yard immediately to the north. This would create the strong urban face for its campus and for Amtrak riders that Hopkins has been trying to achieve for decades.
Looking east along Lombard Street showing three possible new buildings located in the Bayview Rail Yard to the north
 and Bayview's existing National Institutes of Health to the south.

Here are the recent events (in reverse order) which make this a logical progression:

1 - Passenger rail: Most recently, the new Federal Railroad Administration's northeast corridor expansion plan calls for a "hub" Amtrak station at Bayview, which should provide magnitudes more service than the MARC commuter rail station that Hopkins had long sought.

2 - Freight rail: The Maryland Department of Transportation and CSX have announced a plan to enlarge the CSX rail tunnel under Howard Street to accommodate double-stack freight containers to fix a major bottleneck and create a long-needed viable freight route inland to the rest of the country.

3 - Port: The demolished steel works at the 3000 acre Sparrows Point are now being redeveloped as "Tradepoint Atlantic", which calls for a major investment by the private sector and the Maryland Port Administration in expanded port facilities.

What all this means is that the current Norfolk Southern freight rail yard at Bayview will likely become marginal if not totally obsolete, which makes it ripe for acquisition for an expansion of the Hopkins Bayview Research Park to the north. More than ever, freight rail facilities will need to be consolidated and expanded to be in total integration with the port, to create seamless intermodal connections. This includes existing port facilities at Canton, Seagirt and Dundalk, as well as the future facilities at Sparrows Point. The same thing happened previously on the west side of the harbor, beginning when CSX Transportation closed its Port Covington rail yard in the 1980s for redevelopment which has now led to the Under Armour Corporate Campus.

Container storage at the Norfolk Southern Railroad Bayview freight yard,
looking east along Lombard Street from Bioscience Drive

There will no longer be a significant reason to load containers onto freight trains at Bayview. This facility will make no more sense than the inland container terminal that CSX and the state proposed and then cancelled several years ago at various locations west of the port - Elkridge, Jessup, Morrell Park, Mount Winans - whereby freight would have to first be loaded from ships onto trucks travelling on local roads and highways and then subsequently loaded onto trains.

The Port of Baltimore has been investing in far more efficient facilities to load freight trains directly from ships, and Sparrows Point will provide new expansions of this capability.

Evolution of the Hopkins Bayview Research Park campus


The Hopkins Bayview campus now looks much different from how it was originally planned when Johns Hopkins originally bought it from the City in the 1980s. The original plan was to demolish the large building that originally served as City Hospital. This would have created a "blank slate" for a whole new campus which would have integrated the hospital with various health care research and support facilities, built around a "campus green" that in turn would be integrated with the large open space to the south toward Eastern Avenue.

Norfolk Southern's Bayview Rail Yard bounded by Lombard Street to the south,
 Interstate 95 to the east, Interstate 895 to the west and the Amtrak tracks to the north.
The existing Hopkins Bayview Research Park is shown to the south between Lombard Street and  Eastern Avenue.
But this plan was scuttled when it was determined that the old hospital building, now called the Mason Lord Tower, could be more efficiently renovated as offices than demolished for brand new construction. This then led to the decision to build a whole new hospital complex to the east rather than to integrate it with the offices to the west. Then they confronted the economic reality that it was far more feasible to build at lower densities and rely predominantly on surface parking lots rather than garages.

This has been a recipe for success for the Bayview Campus, but it has also resulted in lower density sprawl. Without a tight campus configuration, there is no true focal point that justifies a higher density and hiding the parking away. Bayview looks and functions pretty much like generic suburbia with large parking lot dead zones.

The cancelled light rail Red Line wouldn't have helped much either. It would have slowly wound around the campus much like the current central light rail line winds around Hunt Valley at its north suburban terminus. If anything, Hunt Valley has less sprawl than Bayview, with a higher density and more land use diversity with its attractive open air multi-level shopping plaza having replaced its dead mall, But as with the Red Line, the slow speed and mediocre quality of the light rail service has not justified creating a true transit-oriented focal point for Hunt Valley.

Perhaps an even greater stumbling block is that once a "culture" develops for a particular area, it is very difficult to change it. Areas like Bayview, Hunt Valley and many others have grown up around the automobile with plentiful land and parking, and interjecting light rail is not going to change it. Even newer very urban higher density areas like Harbor East, Harbor Point and Canton Crossing have trouble orienting to rail transit. Harbor East proved unwilling to make the necessary concessions to accommodate a subway station for the Red Line as part of its development, while at Canton Crossing, the developers banished the proposed station to the Boston Street median strip as they proceeded with their suburban inspired auto-oriented development.

Fulfilling Bayview's promise


Expanding Hopkins Bayview into what is now the Norfolk Southern rail yard would create a whole new opportunity for a cultural environment built around transit as the focal point. In turn, such a focal point would create a location of maximum value to justify new high density development.

The transit access would be superior to anything previously proposed - expanded MARC commuter rail to Washington right next to the campus office and research facilities, and potential rail service to Philadelphia, New York and places in between.

This arrangement also creates yet another reason to extend the "heavy rail" Metro from the main Hopkins Hospital to the east along the Amtrak right-of-way, providing the most direct and best possible transit between them and to downtown, and far, far better than the dead Red Line.

The corridor between the main Hopkins Hospital and the Hopkins Bayview campus would then become a "Health Corridor", including intervening Metro stations at the growing "Station East" neighborhood and the large undeveloped Edison Highway/Monument Street site. The latter would still make a very good alternative to Bayview as a comprehensive transit hub serving the Metro, MARC commuter rail and buses. However, if transit-oriented development could be introduced at the Bayview Yard, it would then become the odds-on favorite for the multi-modal transit hub as well. And since the new Federal Rail Administration report selected it as a hub station for expanded service, it's now firmly heading in that direction.

The site plan for the Bayview MARC station which had been created as part of the Red Line plan was totally inadequate. To enable the train station to coexist with the freight yard, the plan required it to be located out on an isolated island in the middle of the yard, with a long pedestrian bridge connecting it to the Red Line station and to its access point. Closing the freight yard will allow the two rail stations to be fully integrated with each other and with multiple access points and transit-oriented development, commensurate with their increasing importance.

Introducing residential, retail and other more diverse land uses into Bayview could also be a great benefit, both for added value and to enhance the "culture" as a true community and not just a work place.

Expanding the Hopkins Bayview Research Park into the Bayview Yard along with an Amtrak station could fulfill all the potential that Hopkins envisioned when development began in the 1980s, and much more.

January 19, 2017

A simple specific ten-point city transportation agenda

Skip the platitudes. Here's just what Baltimore should do to make its transportation system work for the city (with links to various blog articles):

1. Re-time the traffic signals: Green, yellow, red. Green, yellow, red... Reduce the signal cycle times to 60 seconds so traffic moves slower but more often. Take control of the city's heartbeat.

2. Spin-off the Charm City Circulator: The city government can't run it properly, even if it somehow could afford to. Merge it with all the other shuttle buses run by colleges and institutions to create a comprehensive circulator system. In the process, adjust the MTA bus system to eliminate all its redundancies.

3. Create a Lexington Market Transit Hub: This is the first step in creating a truly connected system of Metro, light rail and bus routes, and a fitting complement to the planned new Lexington Market.

The MTA's Harlem Park Red Line Station rendering - but with the surrounding "Highway to Nowhere" replaced by a vibrant
 transit-oriented neighborhood as envisioned by Marc Szarkowski. This is the part of the Red Line that should be built ASAP,
 terminating at a Lexington Market Transit Hub. It would also be part of a Six-Mile West Baltimore Greenway Loop. 

4. Get rid of the "Highway to Nowhere": Transform the desolate corridor into a new neighborhood that is truly built around a "transit culture", anchored by the redevelopment of the downtown Metro West complex to the east, an expanded Heritage Crossing to the north and the all-new West Baltimore train station that Amtrak wants to build to the west.

5. Build the buildable part of the Red Line: Abandon the "fatally flawed", ill-conceived, disconnected and inordinately expensive downtown tunnel. Build the western portion of the Red Line, which has already been mostly designed, and tie it into the Lexington Market Metro Hub, .

6. Make light rail the central access mode for Port Covington instead of an afterthought: Design the planned light rail spur to make the huge Port Covington development a central part of the city, even while it is still remains a world apart.

7. Make the city's bike route network neighborhood-centric: Livable neighborhoods and safe routes for bicycles should go hand-in-hand, while high volume auto routes should be pushed to the periphery.

8. Build a Six-Mile West Baltimore Greenway Loop: This is the key to creating attractive livable neighborhoods in West Baltimore. The six mile greenway loop would include the neighborhood that replaces the "Highway to Nowhere", a narrower and less imposing MLK Boulevard, the historic "First Mile" of the B&O Railroad (one of the city's best tourist resources), and an enhanced greenway from the north edge of Carroll Park to the Gwynns Falls Valley.

9. Make the light rail system "streetcar compatible": The light rail system should be the foundation for a streetcar system that serves shorter and more locally oriented trips with smaller vehicles. The best candidate for early implementation would be from Howard Street to Penn Station. After that would come the links between the new Lexington Market Hub (#3 above) and MLK Boulevard, the Inner Harbor, the Southeast Baltimore Perkins Homes redevelopment and the B&O "First Mile" corridor to Montgomery Park (the city's largest office building).

10. Build a Middle Branch Parkway: A narrow new "spine road" between Conway Street at Camden Yards and Waterview Avenue at Cherry Hill would jump-start development in between, including Westport, the Casino-Camden Yards Entertainment District and a campus for expansion of the Convention Center. Portions of this could be closed to make room for recreation on weekends and for special events.

Finally, the platitudes: The theme here is to use transportation as a tool for community and economic development, to unify the city. This can be done far more effectively through effective physical planning than the various social and legal remedies that people have been talking about for what seems like forever.

We must make as much of Baltimore as attractive as possible - to increase property values, to make investment worthwhile and to shatter preconceived biases. Enacting new laws and police rules won't do it. Creating island fortresses of prosperity won't do it. Giving a few lucky poor folks subsidized waterfront housing among the yuppies won't do it. Pouring tons of money into neighborhoods that aren't worth it won't do it. (That's economics, not racism.)

Creating One Baltimore is a physical change that requires a new way of thinking. Transportation is how we experience the city. Or as George "P-Funk" Clinton (no relation to Hillary 'n' Bill) said: "Free your mind... and your ass will follow."

January 3, 2017

New Amtrak plan: $128 Billion for routine repairs/fixes

The latest federal plan for the Amtrak corridor between Washington and Boston is staggeringly expensive, but would not really result in high speed rail nor is it really even much of a plan. But all that is OK. The unfunded $128 Billion (that's BILLION) plan is still useful as a collection of projects that shows what could and can be done to upgrade the vital rail line as may be necessary. Each specific project in the plan will still need to be justified based on its own merits and costs.

So don't get too excited by the plan's indefinite future best-case scenario which maybe could result in a 20 minute time savings between Baltimore and New York - the latest definition of a "New York Minute".

Amtrak line through Baltimore as depicted in the new plan, with a new Bayview station and two route deviations

The challenge now is to keep our focus straight. This vital public infrastructure must be kept running and in good repair and its passenger carrying capacity must be kept ahead of increasing demand. But there has been no timetable and little justification for actually doing the entire plan, now or even eventually.

That's because as gigantically expensive as it is, the eighth of a trillion dollar rail plan (in old pre-inflated 2014 dollars yet) is only a small piece of the whole transportation system puzzle.

Despite the plan's zillion pages, it hardly even addresses the northeast corridor's constantly shifting urban development patterns or the huge challenge of actually feeding the rail line from the urban areas it serves. And the plan is perhaps most conspicuously silent on transportation's rapidly advancing technology.

But thanks to the plan, there are plenty of issues which should now be coming into sharper focus so we can confront them intelligently and in coordinated ways.


Where Baltimore stands: Is it the new "flyover country"?

The plan finally confirms that existing Penn Station will be Baltimore's principal center city Amtrak station from now on. But unless the city adapts, this will threaten to reduce Baltimore's ability to benefit from the new billions which are to be invested in the Amtrak corridor.

Being an integral part of the burgeoning Northeast U.S. Corridor is one of Baltimore's most intrinsic and advantageous selling points as a city. It's what separates Baltimore from Cleveland, Detroit and other rust belt "flyover" cities.

But the new plan suggests that with the new wider four track tunnel through West Baltimore, there is potential for "express" trains to skip the stop in Baltimore. In the absence of true high speed rail (all trains will still need to crawl through the Penn Station area), the five or so minute time savings from not stopping in Baltimore will be just about the only high speed hype value they can get. Amtrak could end up treating Baltimore like Aberdeen or Metropark, New Jersey. The indignity of it all!

Among Amtrak stations, Baltimore's Penn Station has a unique relationship to the city it serves. It is not downtown. It's close, but not close enough. This is somewhat similar to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, but that Amtrak station has excellent light, heavy, light and commuter rail connections to the center city, while Baltimore does not.

Moreover, new downtown development in Philadelphia has been moving closer to the train station, while in Baltimore it has been moving in the opposite direction toward the waterfront. Yes, Station North has recently been a development success story - but as a neighborhood, not as a new downtown.

So Baltimore's light rail stub branch to Penn Station needs to be treated less like a stepchild / orphan. It needs better coordination with traffic signals on Howard Street, better integration with the rest of the rail system, and the counterbalance of a new southern branch that serves not only Port Covington (the "Plank Line"), but the underdeveloped Cherry Hill and Brooklyn waterfronts as well.

The new Amtrak plan also includes provisions for new "hub" station at Bayview - "hub" being their parlance for getting some kind of future Amtrak intercity service in addition to MARC commuter rail. (The report confusingly does not use the term "regional" the same way Amtrak does.) So making Bayview work well is critical - not just with a lame expensive Red Line that would slowly meander down to the waterfront without being much if any improvement over the current Penn Station light rail stub.

Baltimore needs a great heavy rail connection at Bayview, not the dead light rail Red Line. The city also needs to create the best possible transit with the planned replacement for the West Baltimore rail station.


The parallel role of new technology

The report totally sidesteps the rapidly evolving technological landscape. What they're recommending is essentially no significant advance whatsoever above the state-of-the-art in high speed rail from 50 years ago.

This dodge is understandable, but it must be fully recognized as a huge limitation. Technology is a profound "X Factor". With automated cars now being tested in the real world, technology is moving too fast to be dealt with. New technology is also the predominant domain of the private sector. In contrast, this report was prepared mostly by planners, civil engineers and other government types and their consultants.

Here is essentially the entirety of what the zillion page report says about the role of new technology (Section 4.1.3.1):

"An advanced guideway system, such as magnetic levitation technology, could be used to develop a second spine or portions thereof. This system would require separate stations, and would not support run-through trains from connecting corridors nor offer proven integration efficiencies with today's NEC infrastructure and operators. Furthermore, these technologies remain under development, with few systems in operation internationally. For these reasons, the FRA did not incorporate advanced guideway or similar new technologies in the Action Alternatives. However, such technologies could be studied separately, and are not precluded as a future transformative investment in the regional transportation system. Other potential applications of new technology transportation systems could support the NEC passenger rail network by connecting off-corridor markets to the NEC, or a major market to the NEC."

Translation: A new technology like MagLev would be a separate entity to the NEC (Northeast Corridor), but it could support or feed into it. Fair enough. The FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) just didn't want to deal with it.

It's also just as likely that any new transit mode would create new access and connections to the existing rail corridor, as it would be to replace anything. The most certain thing that could be said is that something like MagLev would be built in an incremental way, just as would the proposed improvements to the existing Amtrak line.

Baltimore is probably likely to benefit more from a MagLev project than any other place, because it's Amtrak station is not located downtown. And if a big pot of billions in foreign or private sector investment came along, such as from the folks Governor Hogan visited in China, the money would do the talking. They would have much to say in where and what would be done.

Other technologies are also in play, like automation and multi-modal vehicles such as the dual powered diesel-electric locomotives which are now being used by New Jersey Transit to enable trains of one mode to use tracks of another.
Dual powered diesel-electric locomotive used by NJ Transit - Richard Layman's blog
www.urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2012/08/dual-powered-diesel-electric-locomotive.html

Even the role of the old Interstate 95 between Washington and Boston will evolve. In the future, it could carry more buses, Zipcars, Google Cars, Ubers and Lyfts than conventional private cars, and all will pay for the privilege with steep demand-responsive dynamic pricing (that means expensive variable tolls).

So MagLev isn't going to replace or preclude improvements to the Amtrak corridor as a whole between Washington and Boston, but it could have a major impact. And when something "transformative" happens, we'll go from there.


We should be pro-active

The new Amtrak plan for the Northeast U.S. Corridor is really just $128 Billion worth of status-quo business-as-usual. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as New Yawk's Seinfeld used to say.

Amtrak is basically a "calling card" that allows Baltimore to hang out with the big boys in the Northeast Corridor - Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston - who are just as likely to treat us like one of their other little siblings like Wilmington, Trenton, New Haven and Providence.

So Baltimore and Maryland need to look out for themselves to fit in and stand out. That means projects like a high speed MagLev line for a 15 minute trip from downtown Baltimore to Washington should be as alive as ever. Maybe it starts with a "Mag-Leg" between the Greenbelt DC Metro Station and BWI Airport or the UMBC Research Park. Whatever.

Another interesting prospect would be to integrate Baltimore's underused heavy rail Metro line and the Amtrak system in a dual-mode type of arrangement. Dual mode trains could run in the Amtrak corridor from Aberdeen or White Marsh or Eastpoint, and enter the Metro line at the new Bayview Amtrak station to continue to Station East, Hopkins Hospital, and the Charles Center Station in the middle of downtown.

The trains could then continue to Owings Mills, or proceed back to the Amtrak corridor via the Franklin-Mulberry "Highway to Nowhere" corridor and end up at Washington, DC's Union Station.

Stay tuned. Now that we've gotten Amtrak's $128 Billion routine upgrade wish-list, we can start the real planning.