October 30, 2018

Baltimore's MagLev Station MUST be Downtown

The engineering report for the high speed Baltimore-Washington Magnetic Levitation train station alternatives will be released soon, with three basic options - two of which are merely waterfront development sites. Downtown is the only option which makes any sense, the only location where it can serve the entire Baltimore region as a whole and lead to broad-based growth.
Three candidate MagLev station locations: Only downtown would have integrated access to the entire city and region.

Baltimore was built around downtown. All the region's transportation infrastructure has always emanated from downtown, including the street, highway and transit systems. MagLev is supposed to revolutionize Baltimore's place and role in the U.S. Northeast Corridor with 15 minute travel to Washington at up to 300 mph and eventually to New York. The entire region must benefit from this, not just isolated places.

Port Covington and Westport, the two alternatives outside downtown, are isolated places - former industrial and railroad properties shielded by the waterfront. The primary reason they have been considered attractive for billions of dollars of investment by their developers, supported by the city taxpayers, is that they are separated from downtown.

Traffic access to both Westport and Port Covington are zero-sum games that rely almost completely on highways that are already at or near capacity. Westport's highway connections include at-grade railroad crossings. Port Covington's connections require relocating and expanding the I-95 ramps in a way that would simply reduce the capacity for through traffic.

In contrast, downtown is served by a comprehensive and open-ended transportation network - spokes on a wheel which extend outward in all directions. Development has always followed these spokes. MagLev would simply be a continuation of the historical development patterns that have always been the framework for the city's growth.

Every neighborhood in the city and suburbs is defined to a large extent by its geographical relationship to downtown. Growth areas of earlier eras such as Mount Vernon, Upton, Charles Village and even Govans are defined as being midtown and uptown. As downtown's roles have evolved over the years, these relationships have evolved with it. Major downtown redevelopments like Charles Center, the Inner Harbor, Harbor East and Harbor Point have in turn created challenges for these communities to grow as well.

But what would happen if suddenly, Westport or Port Covington became the primary focus? There is very little historic linkage between these areas and most of Baltimore. Some linkage can be created via the central light rail line, with perhaps a spur, but this is hardly the kind of comprehensive connectivity that would be needed. The geographic boundaries of Westport and Port Covington are both limited and finite.

Downtown is also the only place that has the kind of rich complex web of land uses, interests and ownership that can truly respond to the challenges of MagLev and ensure that its benefits are as broad based as possible. All interests would get to decide how they want to respond to take advantage of MagLev.

Westport/Port Covington development monopoly


A huge problem with Westport and Port Covington is that both are essentially owned and controlled by the same single individual - Keven Plank, founder and majority owner of Under Armour. That is far too much control to give a single person.

The first phase of Port Covington development is supposed to proceed in late 2019 or 2020 - a relatively low density mixed-use complex adjacent to the newly completed whiskey distillery on the waterfront. This would be followed by much more ambitious and higher density development later, anchored by a large Under Armour corporate campus, as defined by a carefully crafted long range plan which was developed to get approval for $660 Million in city Tax Increment Financing.

But recent events make this questionable. Under Armour's growth has recently plummeted. Plank was highly aggressive in attempting to woo Amazon in its current highly publicized HQ2 campaign. When that failed, Plank's development team reportedly put its hat in the ring for a new arena to replace the old Baltimore Arena downtown.

This kind of Port Covington one-track mentality definitely hurt the city's effort to attract Amazon. The city has many other great development sites.

And this would essentially have necessitated the carefully crafted Port Covington master plan to start over at square one. A MagLev Station would require the same. An athletic wear campus, whiskey distillery and medium density development would not be the best uses in proximity to a MagLev Station.

Westport's future potential would be even more constrained. Plank's development team has indefinitely suspended all the ambitious Westport development plans which were prepared by the defaulted previous owner Patrick Turner, and they are content to simply the large waterfront property sit vacant until they deal with Port Covington. But unlike Port Covington, there is a small adjacent moderate income neighborhood which has essentially been held hostage by this, victims of all this fuzzy future speculation.

The Westport community has been very open minded about preparing for future development challenges, working for years with Patrick Turner to create the best possible plans for all. But a Westport MagLev station would be beyond any small community's ability to plan for change. If Westport was chosen for the MagLev Station, the community would be turned inside-out overnight.

From the standpoint of MagLev's development impacts, Westport and Port Covington really can't be considered separately. Westport would be Port Covington's secondary real estate market, and vice versa, owned by the same Plank consortium. They are essentially the same alternative. And downtown is the only other choice.

MagLev for the masses


The need for MagLev to serve everybody cannot be overemphasized, and is a primary reason why the station must be downtown rather than on any isolated development site. It cannot be merely a plaything for the rich. Yes, some relatively well-to-do will use it to commute to Washington, but its role needs to go far beyond that, especially as it is eventually extended toward New York and elsewhere.

In determining how various income groups would be affected by MagLev, distinctions need to be made between development and transportation impacts. The limited finite geographical size of Westport and Port Covington means that high income people would be able to dominate the speculation. In contrast, downtown areas immediately around the station would be most attractive for the high rollers, but as distance increases in all directions, lower income folks spanning the entire region would be able to take advantage as well.

That brings us to income effects of the MagLev system itself. The huge multi-billion cost of MagLev is irrelevant to how it would stratify income groups. Capital cost is committed up-front and is a "sunk cost". This is now all rail transit works. When the cost of the proposed Red Line tripled, no one thought that would have an effect on whether rich people would ride it.

Once MagLev is up and running, the challenge will simply be to attract as many people to use it as necessary to fill all the seats. Naturally, if service is of a sufficiently high quality, rich folks will be attracted and the operators will try to set the fares to get as much money from them as possible. This is what Amtrak does with its Acela trains, which are barely faster than the regular trains (mostly by skipping stops) but have double or triple the fares.

This is also the same as the distinction between first class and coach air travel. The long-term trend has been for airlines to cater increasingly to the lowest class, with cheaper fares and treating the masses like they're crammed into cattle cars. Since the popularization of air travel in the 1950s, there has been only one major attempt at a service exclusively geared to the upper class - the supersonic Concorde, which was a total failure.

MagLev will be nothing like the Concorde, because it will be a truly high capacity mode of transportation. Its propulsion will be on the guideway, not on the vehicles, so operating cost per vehicle will be low, leading to a push to maximize the number of trains. So for the rich and not so rich alike, the high frequency of service will be at least as important as the speed.

Everyone will want to take maximum advantage of being able to arrive at the station whenever they please and board a train as quickly as possible, rather than being slaves to a schedule. Sure, there will no doubt be a high fare first-class service that provides priority boarding and nicer seats, and maybe free booze if there's time for it, but that's about the only extent of the class distinctions.

Amtrak will have to adapt as well, emphasizing shorter distance trips between stations that don't have MagLev. The distinctions between Amtrak and commuter railroads will then blur or even disappear. This is already apparent in Amtrak's long range capital improvement plan, which only attempts to raise travel speeds by small increments. Commuter rail ridership is already concentrated more on higher income groups, while less frequent riders cover the entire income spectrum. So the cheapest MagLev fare between Baltimore and Washington may eventually be not much more than a typical Amtrak fare. MARC may go to a single base fare no matter how many miles you ride, just like MTA buses.

So MagLev needs mass appeal, as much as any mass transit does. That can't be provided at Port Covington or Westport. It can only be accommodated downtown, where the entire regional transportation system converges.

Mechanic Theater station site looking west from Redwood Street across Charles Street.
The curved roof of the Charles Center Metro Station entrance at Baltimore Street is seen to the right. 

Best downtown station for MagLev and Hyperloop: Mechanic Theater site


The obvious location for a MagLev Station is the former Mechanic Theater site at Charles and Baltimore Street at the exact traditional center of downtown, right at the Charles Center Metro Station. Whenever the old Baltimore Arena is finally demolished, sooner or later, the station can then be linked to the central light rail line. Other good candidate sites may also be available, but they must be near the center of downtown.

The criteria for a station on Elon Musk's proposed "Hyperloop" system are pretty much the same, and the same station should be designed for both. It is now apparent, however, that Musk's business plan is to emphasize incrementalism in his proposed system, rather than attempting to build an expensive, high speed, high capacity line all at once. It is also increasingly likely that the initial segment won't serve Baltimore at all, and may be in southern California. So, there will be a "learning curve" before major decisions need to be made. This should complement MagLev quite well.

Musk's system will initially use slower "skates" that operate up to 150 mph, about half as fast as MagLev or Hyperloop, covering stations which are closer together and off the main "trunk" line. This would create more of a tree with branches than a single high speed corridor. Thus Musk's system could feed MagLev, the same way conventional transit does.

Baltimore must prepare for the future of transportation no matter what eventually happens. The only way to do that is to plan for a high speed rail station in the heart of downtown.

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