Why the Red Line Doesn't Fit

Why the Red Line Doesn't Fit

red line map

Gerald Neily was a Transportation Planner for the Baltimore City Department of Planning from 1977 to 1996, and yes, he participated in the planning for many of the mistakes outlined in this article. The planning for Baltimore's Red Line follows a long tradition of inefficiency and well-known problems with the city’s 40-plus mile system. What is it that frustrates so many Baltimoreans about their transit system? The rail lines don't connect to each other. The MTA emphasizes this by often not even putting the heavy and light rail lines on the same maps. The connections of bus routes to rail lines are often confusing or non-existent. For example, the closest that the major #15 Northeast bus line gets to the Hopkins Hospital Metro Station (or the hospital itself) is three blocks away in front of some obscure row-houses at Broadway and Chase Street. The Light rail is painfully slow. It takes 76 minutes to get from Hunt Valley to the airport – and that's when it runs on time. The Light rail overwhelms its urban street environment. On Howard Street, the three-car trains use an entire block of curb space for stations, requiring the elimination of street-lane access and parking, and thus sapping the street of life - instead of adding to it. Will the new Red Line be any different? The MTA might find the financial means to put this train underground through downtown. However, it will be in a brand new tunnel that is a block or two away from (and parallel to) the existing Metro tunnel, requiring passengers to pass through an underground pedestrian passageway to get from one line to the other. If the MTA goes cheap and puts it on the surface of downtown streets, it will get bogged down in the same congestion that plagues existing traffic and light rail trains - and of course, it still won't connect to the Metro. Giving the Red Line its own surface traffic lanes won't get it through the traffic lights any faster either; it will just further squeeze downtown's precious street space and vitality. Few downtown streets are wide enough to accommodate two lanes of Light Rail and two lanes of both traffic and parking. The City and the MTA may attempt to use traffic engineering measures like one-way streets and signal timing to get the traffic to move more efficiently, as they have many times before. But in places like Fells Point and Canton, this means attempting to convert the streets into fast-moving arterials that they were never intended to be. In the past, those communities have fought plans like this every step of the way. If a new rail transit line is not significantly faster or more efficient than the existing one, there will be no incentive for passengers to use the Red Line. This is a particularly acute problem with the Bayview MARC Commuter rail station proposed near the east end of the Red Line, intended to provide a new connection between commuter rail from Baltimore, Harford and Cecil Counties, and the city. No matter how fast the MARC train is, if it feeds into a slow Red Line that meanders around waterfront streets before finally getting downtown, no one is going to use it. Not to mention that Maryland is now doing a billion-dollar widening of Interstate 95 which will whisk cars along at double or quadruple the speeds of the Red Line. None of these problems have deterred the MTA from forging ahead with their narrow-minded Red Line plans. But there are effective, feasible and economical solutions to these problems - all of which the MTA has consistently ignored: The lack of connections between MARC and Metro on the east side can be solved simply by extending the existing Metro Line slightly east from Hopkins Hospital out of the ground to a new transit terminal merged with the MARC/Amtrak tracks and numerous bus lines. Metro currently takes only three minutes to get from Hopkins Hospital to Charles Center. A one- or-two-mile extension may increase the time to five or six minutes, but this would still make the Metro and MARC truly competitive with driving throughout the suburban corridor. Such a Metro extension would also be poised to serve Bayview, Essex, and Middle River along the Amtrak corridor and Highlandtown, Greektown, Brewers Hill, and Canton Crossing via a vacant railroad spur along Haven Street to the south. Downtown, any new rail transit line needs to either use the existing Metro tunnel so that passengers can transfer across the same platform, or it should directly intersect so that a transfer is only an escalator ride away. This is the way that modern rail transit works in other cities like Washington, DC and Atlanta. Why not Baltimore? This may require getting creative. The MTA should investigate using the old Charles Center "Down Under" parking garage as a transit tunnel, or else part of the north-south Yellow Line could be built to create this transfer point. Fells Point and other inner-city communities with old 18th-century streets could be served by streetcars instead of regional rail to maintain the scale of the community and promote an intimate, user-friendly interface with riders. The Charles Street Development Corporation is already conducting a serious study of the use of streetcars in their corridor. Streetcars would also be far more appropriate in the Inner Harbor, where the MTA has ruled out the Red Line because it would not connect to the Metro and the remainder of downtown. On the west side, a whole new transit-oriented environment should be created for the Red Line in the former Franklin-Mulberry "Ditch" and at the West Baltimore MARC Station. West of that point, the entire corridor extending from Leakin Park to Irvington should be examined to spread the benefits of transit and the burdens of heavy car traffic away from the beleaguered Route 40 corridor. The Red Line simply won't fit into Route 40 as currently configured. All of this could be accomplished in a much more economical and realistic financial framework than what the MTA has been attempting to do. The way to make a project cost-effective, particularly relative to the competition for federal funding, is to maximize the use of what we already have, and to split the projects up into smaller feasible segments. On that score, the MTA Red Line plan fails miserably. Baltimore's standing in the competition for federal funds would be infinitely enhanced by leveraging rather than ignoring our existing transit assets. The MTA has spent years futilely trying to fit the Red Line into the eye of a very narrow needle. It is never too late to become open minded to the vast possibilities that a truly world-class transit system could offer Baltimore. See Gerald Neily's blog at http://www.BaltimoreInnerSpace.blogspot.com