Monday, November 14, 2016

Is there a future for the Red Line?

One of the pathways towards a Red Line looked like this: Vote for a Democratic President in 2016, vote Governor Hogan out of office in 2018 and try to reinstate federal and state funding on the base of the existing design and its environmental permits and reviews.
Red Line simulation (on Edmondson Avenue)

That pathway was a fairly thin straw but its proponents pointed to the Inter-County-Connector as an example. It had hibernated and came back from a long slumber when the political constellation was right.

With last week's elections having gone they way they went, prospects to revive the Red Line have further dimmed, even though the Presdient Elect speaks a lot about infrastructure. It isn't clear what he means and what his administration would support. If Governor Christie is any indication, the signs point to highways, roads and bridges, not rail and not transit.

As far as the next Governor, Baltimore County Executive Kamenetz has set his eyes on that position.  His County has opened up another route for a future Red Line as part of this year's annual transportation "road show". It is part of  the process in which the next transportation project list and budget is determined and where a wishlist is being submitted by all Maryland jurisdictions for funding from the State's trust fund.

Kamenetz always had issues with the Red Line, until the current Governor struck it from the menu, that is. Not entirely unlike Governor Hogan he thought the Red Line as designed had too much tunnel and didn't connect enough with the other rail systems,  even though at least the latter part wasn't correct and the former begs the question what alternative would work better.
The original Red Line alignment connecting east and west to downtown

Kemenetz now warmed up a version of a partial Red Line that the "Right Rail" coalition had propagated for years in their effort of  preventing subway or surface rail on Boston Street, no matter what. In that version the Red Line, or whatever such a transit sustem would be called, would still have its western terminus deep in Baltimore County at CMS and Social Security, but would never go further than Lexington Market. There, anybody wanting to go further east, would have to trasnfer to the existing metro line with its underground station right in front of the Market.
"Right Rail" Coalition

This sounds like a plausible idea until one considers a few details: The western half of the Red Line without the eastern part does only half the job. It provides additional access to some disenfranchised communities at Edmondson Village, Rosemont, West Baltimore and Harlem Park and a job center in Baltimore County, but it does not provide direct access to downtown or the growing centers at Harbor East, Harborpoint, Canton Crossing or Bayview. Anything to the east would be limited to what can be reached via Metro, i.e. mostly the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the new EBDI area with its biopark.  The truncated Red Line would do nothing to alleviate congestion and access problems on the east side along Fleet and Aliceanna Streets.

The western half of the alignment isn't as easy or cheap as all the "boondoggle" talk about the dopwntown tunnels as the main complication would suggest. The truncated line would still have to cross the Beltway on a long and tall bridge structure at Security Mall and would still need a Cooks Lane tunnel since residents there did not accept any surface option on the narrow and hilly street.
Las Vegas Bus Rapid Transit

More critically, the Red Line, as it was engineered and approved, would have left the median of the "Highway to Nowhere" to go under Fremount Avenue and become a fast connection under congested downtown and historic Fells Point. The Kamenetz version would have to find a new route from the Highway to Nowhere to Lexington Market, an alignment that wasn't designed, engineered or permitted and one that requires two 90 degree turns. That segment alone would be enough of a departure from the permitted line that new environmental studies would be needed and any hope to ride the coat-tails of $240 million worth of past engineering would be dashed.

A quick back-of-the-envelope type analysis that MTA did to evaluate the Right Rail Coalition's suggestion showed significant cost and engineering issues to make an underground terminus of the half-line a plausible and direct connection to Metro in the manner that ones knows from the Metro Center station in DC.

Kamenetz doesn't seem to be set on using the existing Red Line engineering and offers that such a half Red Line could also be Bus Rapid Transit instead of light rail. That mode was studied as an early option during the Red Line project planning, but it was not engineered. It is unclear how or where a surface bus coming in from the west could provide a decent transfer at Lexington Market without being disruptive to one of the few Streets in the current Westside that have a decent amount of retail and activity: Saratoga Street.

True, the region and the City need to think about the future of the metropolitan transit system beyond the simple revival of the Red Line, even though, a revival would be the only quick way to utilize the efforts of 12 years of planning without having to start all over. But shots from the hip of political leaders would need a lot of additional analysis before they become really viable alternatives.  This is why the cancellation of the Red Line was such a huge blow to Baltimore.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN commentary

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