Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Recycling bad ideas for the Red Line

David Warnock, one of the mayoral contenders who lost against Catherine Pugh offered up a "Pugh Plan" in an editorial in Tuesday's Baltimore Sun.  Using this unusual format of getting his ideas back into circulation, his suggestions include a "modified" Red Line similar to what had been suggested before by the Baltimore Brew, by the "Right Rail" coalition and by gubernatorial contender and current County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. It remains a bad idea and here is why.

The "idea" of all these parties has been to build only the western half of the Red Line up to Lexington Market, save the cost for the downtown tunnel by using the existing Metro tunnel through downtown. From points just north of the current Metro terminus at Johns Hopkins the suggested concept follows the existing Amtrak alignment to Bayview, or as Warnock has it, all the way to Sparrows Point (the original Red Line alignment ended the line in Dundalk). Here how Warnock describes this in his editorial:
Baltimore Red Line in its own tunnel
Build a modified Red Line. The large number of jobs created at the Baltimore port, Tradepoint Atlantic and Port Covington most likely go to drivers on the 95 corridor unless we create an east-west public transportation system. The cost of the old Red Line was largely in the tunnel under the city that was duplicative with the subway. We could put hundreds of people to work, revive Lexington market and create real opportunity for marginalized populations in east and west Baltimore. Build a light rail that runs from Social Security to Lexington Market and then from John Hopkins Hospital to Bayview down to Sparrows Point. We have a viable subway system; make it part of a cohesive public transportation system. We will not move the needle on jobs and economic opportunity in Baltimore city unless we create a public transportation system that allows our citizens to get to those jobs.
This sounds convincing. After all, why duplicate a downtown tunnel just one block away from an existing tunnel if it is the tunnel cost that, according to Governor Hogan sank the Red Line in the first place? The devil sits in the details and requires some excursion into the difference between light rail and metro, into what construction is needed and how riders would be served.

The originally proposed Red Line was suggested as light rail and not as Metro because there is no cost effective way to build a grade separated Metro with its "third rail" power supply on Edmondson or Dundalk Avenues even though the original Metro plans conceived in the 1960s did, indeed, imagine a real subway line to run in the median of the "Highway to Nowhere" and extend west. But along with the urban freeway extension died also the option to run a metro through West Baltimore.
Baltimore Metro: Incompatible with light rail

Once it was clear that the east west line had to be Light Rail, i.e. trains that get power from overhead and are narrow enough that they fit into a street like the north-south Central Light Rail Line, it isn't compatible with the Metro trains. It can't easily run in the same tunnel because the light rail trains are narrower and lower than the metro trains. Doors and vehicle floors would not meet the platforms without a large gap or step, both not allowed under accessibility rules and very hard to work around. Additionally, a second power supply system would have to be shoehorned into the existing tunnel.

So maybe Kamenetz, Warnock and others imagine that the light rail trains end at Lexington Market and people would transfer to Metro, not a popular option. Beyond Hopkins Metro line could be extended to Bayview alongside the Amtrak tracks (or Sparrows Point) similar to the Metro line running on the surface along I-795. Not cheap, but possible. In that case the whole eastside of their proposed "modified" Red Line would be an entirely new project. Tunnel construction would not be entirely avoided. A tunnel is needed to get the trains from the Hopkins station to the elevated Amtrak line running through East Baltimore and another tunnel is needed to get to the Lexington Metro station unless one wants to suggest a surface option from Fremont Avenue (near the end of "the ditch") to Lexington Market with complicated turns and intersections at MLK, Paca and Greene Streets. Those shorter tunnels would be highly inefficient, probably not worth a tunnel boring machine and therefore to be constructed in open excavation. It would inconsequential that "knock-out panels" at the Lexington Metro Station once envisioned a west extension.
Environmental Impact Studies take lots of time

But even if one assumes that these tunnels could be constructed and funded and there would still be savings left over the actual Red Line as it was designed when Hogan killed the project and nobody would mind the disruption to the existing Metro operations or the transfers at those new connections, the resulting system wouldn't at all provide the same service. The "modified" east-west rail line wouldn't serve the existing light rail, the two stadiums, the Convention Center or the Inner Harbor any better than the current Metro and many think that those links aren't nearly good enough. The "modified line" wouldn't serve Harbor East, HarborPoint, Fells Point, Canton or Canton Crossing or Highlandtown-Greektown, all growth areas with lots of jobs and residents that represented a large portion of the estimated Red Line ridership. Instead, east of Lexington Market the "modified line" would only serve areas which are either already served by the existing Metro or could easily be served with additional MARC stations (for example at EBDI).

In other words, benefits would take a deep dive and would exceed whatever imagined saved cost. That is not a trivial matter, it would make the cost-benefit ratio unacceptable for federal funding. Given how averse the current Governor is towards rail transit spending (He even cut the State funding for the surviving Purple line to less than half what was originally envisioned) federal funds seem indispensable, even when assuming a private public partnership. The Purple Line qualified for and needs a $900 million federal funding portion.
Typical tunnel section for Red Line

On top of all this, a significantly "modified" Red Line requires all new reviews, community participation, environmental approvals and engineering, essentially putting the project back to square one (where it was in 2002).

The "modified" Red Line is not a promising alternative and that is precisely why it was discarded as an option after some initial analysis. Unlikely that another run at the same idea would yield a different result. While Kamenetz and other candidates for governor are right that the  the Red Line is essntial for the future of the Baltimore region, they must realize that the only way to revive and jump-start the project is to keep the design and concentrate on re-instituting funding.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


  1. Thanks for the information. Good read and yes we must pursue the refunding of the Redline...

  2. Klaus, you have lived here long enough to know that if you can get a piece of the transit loaf, you take it. Eventually, you hope the pieces add up to a whole loaf. A west side red line? I'll take it, thank you. In fact, have it connect to the existing light rail tracks on Howard St, head south, and peel off below Camden Yards to Port Covington. A Social Security to Port Covington red line. Amazon might notice!

    1. The issue isn't whether you or I "would take it" or whether it is better than nothing (no doubt) but if the proposed line is fundable (federal) and what it takes to get it done in terms of design and permits. My point is that it isn't as easy or cheap as some make it.