Friday, January 20, 2017

Does the Red Line still have a chance?

Recently on WYPR in a talk show about transportation the host, Tom Hall, asked me point blank if here in 2017 with Larry Hogan as Governor in Annapolis and a Republican President in Washington, I still see a chance that the Baltimore Red Line could be built.

I said something like, certainly not in the next few years but that I have been around the block enough times to know that when it comes to big projects, dead doesn't always mean dead. The Maryland Inter-County-Connector (ICC) comes to mind which had been declared dead by Governor Glendening, revived by Governor Ehrlich and built in the end under O'Malley. Or the New York Second Avenue Subway line which had been on the drawing boards since the 1920s, had even a groundbreaking in 1977 and was then dead again. It opened to the public on this New Years Day. MagLev between Baltimore and Washington has been dead and alive several times, even if only on paper.
The Baltimore Rail Plan of 2002: No similar vision has emerged since

It doesn't help that the Obama Federal Transit Administration apparently did not manage in its last weeks to formulate a response to the civil rights complaints brought forth  in response to the cancellation of the $3 billion transit project unless it is still caught in the mail. (Actually, it was, see link at the bottom). But it does help to remember what Obama said today on occasion of the change of power: “This isn't a period, it's a comma, in the continuing story that is America.” Transportation planning needs to take that longer view.
The Red Line demonstrates how the technology test is won. Moreover, there is no mass transit option on the horizon that will emerge in Baltimore in the near future that can demonstrate a technological superiority to light rail.  Not water taxis, maglev, or monorail.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has been hailed as a capable alternative to rail in Baltimore. Trials may be conducted, but BRT does not not challenge inequity in Baltimore. MTA has not indicated how limited BRT will attract new riders to the city's bus system.  Even with BRT's promised elimination of boarding and congestion delays, Baltimore's bus system will remain a poor person's transit option.(Samuel Jordan President Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition)
People who know of my dozen or so years of involvement with the project ask me, if I still think that the Red Line was a good project. My answer is yes, even though it wasn't a perfect project. During the many design stages the project had seen many compromises and some were not making it better. But all things considered, the project was and is still the one that meets a large gaping need for high capacity, rapid transit in the east west direction that ties in with and helps to connect the existing other rail systems of MARC, the Central Light Rail Line (CRL) and the Metro. This additional rail line would create a qualitative shift from three disparate rail lines to an actual rail system, especially with proper fare and signage integration. The Central Baltimore Transit Alliance did once a comparison on how many miles of rail and how many stations the District's WMATA system has compared to ours and the quantitative comparison showed that the Red Line would get us into quite comparable territory. (Before DC had the new Silver Line).
The DC Metro map

When asked about the long range perspective, MTA or  MDOT don't have any plans beyond the Metro train coach replacement, the CLR train car midlife overhaul and the Link bus reform, all projects already underway and complete around 2018. There are ideas about MARC MDOT is non-committal about their realization. Surely the greater Baltimore metro region needs transit plans beyond those on the books and the MTA is aware of it.

My prediction is that sooner or later local stakeholders and transportation planners will get out of the current political trenches and take a look of the transportation needs of the region and discover that to remain competitive this region needs to do more than fix the bus system and keep the current rail system safe.

No matter where one looks in the country, Republican or Democrat, North, South, East or West, light rail has emerged as a smart way of addressing urban transit; same around the globe, There are many reasons for that, from the fact that LRT can fit into existing streets and lanes where necessary, it can run on rail bridges and in regular subway tunnels and its operating mode can be adjusted anywhere in a continuum between slow low capacity streetcar and fast high capacity subway. The quarter billion dollars spent on planning the Red Line, the stacks of fully designed drawings, the wide community consensus and the fully completed Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) will sooner or later be too attractive as assets to not being dusted off again. They represent a huge head-start for the region once it is ready to look ahead for a period that extends beyond 18 months.
Station area development concept West Baltimore

There is little point in continually hitting Governor Hogan over the head with his decision of not moving forward with the project. He is not likely to change his mind.

In the meantime there are many things that the Mayor, the City Council and the State and Congressional Delegations can do to ensure the Red Line remains an option: On the most basic level, to not build anything that would preclude the project or require major EIS amendments and new engineering. But there are also less obvious steps that can be done now, and they have to do with what is called land use. Transit works best if there is a lot of dense use where the stations are supposed to be. Baltimore's track record with high intensity use around train stations isn't very good. There are a lot of reasons for that, many have to do with the overall ailments of disinvestment plaguing the City. But that doesn't mean that there shouldn't be focused attempts to create attractive high density mixed use developments around transit stations of the kind one can see going up at the Rotunda, in Butchers and in Brewers Hill. Those development would have the most connectivity impact in places were trains are already running and where the Red Line plans anticipate them to run one day.

Station area redevelopment concept Harlem Park
I was involved in years of station area planning with community action teams called SAACs. Each of the 18 or so station areas had a planning team consisting of residents, City planners and consultants that developed together plans depicting and describing how the communities envisioned their communities to develop around the planned train stops. A lot of energy, money and social capital went into that innovative community engagement effort.

Those plans are economic development concepts valid on many counts even without the trains being in place. Especially on the disinvested Westside which is crying out for transit and development equity. Areas like Edmondson Village, Rosemont, West Baltimore, Harlem Park and Poppleton are in dire need of the kind of actions the SAACs had worked out as their consensus plans. The cancellation of the Red Line by the Governor should not be used as an excuse to ignore these plans, especially since some of them also act as transit hubs for the reformed Baltimore bus system. Investment in the corridor that would bring services, jobs and development to these areas would be precisely what is needed for equity and to soften the blow that the cancellation of the Red Line represented for the communities along the line.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

On the economic benefits of transit see also my article on Community Architect
Baltimore SUN report of 1/24/17 about the Civil Rights Complaint