Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The State of Transit in the Region: From Bad to Worse?

This year has been extremely rough for transit and has heightened the need to think about the  future of transit. In Baltimore, transit and transportation, once a geeky topic, have become the focus of public interest. 
Event poster of the Baltimore Transit
Equity Coalition 

Various bills are anticipated to address the region's transit future in the State's legislative session starting in January: Foremost the Transit Safety and Investment Act still pending from last year. Another bill is expected to require tracking transit equity. It has not yet been published. Mayor Scott has officially declared December 21 as Baltimore Transit Equity Solidarity Day and has already shown more interest in support for transit than previous Mayors.

At least three documents are trying to map the transit future in the greater Baltimore Washington region.

More bus lanes to accelerate the bus

Finally, there is the Transportation & Climate initiative, a compact between 13 states of the eastern US (including Maryland) which will introduce carbon pricing and trading into transportation. While not a Baltimore region initiative, TCI has enormous potential to shift transportation priorities and open up new funding streams, especially for transit. 

A D-grade for transit

Meanwhile, the latest CMTA Report Card gave Baltimore area transit once again a D grade, mostly because of poor job access based on the annual analysis performed by the University of Minnesota. The depressing thing about that is that the LINK bus reform promoted by the current Governor has not lifted the poor grade, worse job access is supposed tohave slipped compared to 2018, the basis of the previous report. In short, the state of transit in the Baltimore region hasn't been stellar for a long time and COVID has made it much worse. 
The Transportation Report Card by CMTA

A typical Baltimorean can only get to 9% of the region’s jobs in under an hour using public transportation. (Report Card)

According to data collected by the Federal Transit Administration, MTA’s bus and rail systems have the highest breakdown rates compared to its peer agencies (2018 data, cited in CMTA Report Card_
 Would the three plans and the proposed bills improve area transit? 

The Transit Investment Act

Since the biggest problem for transit is the lack of money, the Investment Act would make a difference since this governor consistently prioritized roadway spending over transit ever since he took office. With COVID having drastically decreased the dollars flowing into the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund, which fuels all matters and modes of transportation in Maryland, the Governor announced especially drastic cuts for MTA. The proposed bill squarely aims at funding MTA for a "good state of repair", if need be, by reallocating other transportation funds towards transit. 

Requiring the Governor to include certain appropriations in the State budget from the Transportation Trust Fund to the Maryland Transit Administration for certain operating and capital needs of the Administration in certain fiscal years; (Bill description)
To make financial matters worse, the single large transit project that the Governor let happen, the DC area Purple Line, hit a big snag when the lead contractor walked off the job frustrated by the many delays that the project organized as a public private partnership has experienced. In a settlement, designed to rescue the partially constructed project, the State will have to pay at least $100 million to get the project moving again. Although it isn't clear yet what the total tally of this major hick-up will be, nor from where the funds will come, there is little doubt that the Transportation Trust Fund will pay this settlement which was celebrated as a success, both by MDOT and by transit advocates. 

The Regional Transit Plan

The Regional Transit Plan was finished under COVID but was commenced much earlier. It, too originated from a bill sponsored by Delegate Lierman. Titled "Connecting Our Future" the 25 year plan was completed in October 2020. In its introductory letter MTA Administrator Quinn says:

Over the past two years, MDOT MTA has worked collaboratively with the Central  Maryland Regional Transit Plan Commission, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, and the public to develop a comprehensive twenty-five-year vision for transit in the Central Maryland Region: Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, and Howard Counties.
The Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan presents goals, objectives, and initiatives to enhance transit service, support the economy, and reduce our environmental impact. Through coordinated planning and investment from the region’s transit agencies and the local jurisdictions, we have an opportunity to create an interconnected transit network that is more reliable, convenient, and efficient.
Goals and Initiatives (Regional Transit Plan)

The Regional Plan, initiated long before anybody remotely thought about a virus, addresses several of the typical issues that plagued our transit all along, namely lack of reliability, not enough destinations to reach within a reasonable time, long trip times, a poor state of repair and poor communication. Addressing these issues will be good, no matter what. The plan also identifies various priority corridors that should be studied for expanded service without suggesting a mode (bus, light rail, subway etc). All metrics and goals in the plan are based on improvements above pre-COVID services. Since the pandemic resulted in service cuts rather than improvements, all metrics are already off to some extent. 

Really drastic cuts almost happened this fall when MTA proposed massive cuts only to avert most of them last minute. A public outcry caused MTA to alter their plans and slash only rail and commuter bus service where ridership losses were the highest. How long will this truce last is not known, no further cuts are proposed at this time, a significant advantage over many other systems in the nation. As is well known, the current pandemic landscape has turned the economy of many industries upside down to such an extreme amount that it is entirely unclear how a "new normal" after COVID will look like, whether in office, hospitality, culture, or entertainment. All affecting transportation. Especially work from home could reduce the commute numbers for a long time to come. 

The regional transit authority

When things don't go so well, there is always the possibility that they are not well organized. The MD Transportation Trust Fund has been long a point of Maryland pride, but the status of Baltimore transit as a function of a State Agency with no local participation (or funding contribution) is fairly unique. After the cancellation of the Baltimore Red Line a movement to limit the Governor's power over local transit gained momentum. The report by the transportation think tank ENO in Washington DC suggests three models for how the Baltimore region could get additional say over how transit is run in the metro area. The most drastic option would be the creation of a regional transportation authority similar to what is common in most metro regions across the country, including DC's WMATA
Ridership loss on buses: MTA has the third smallest loss
in the nation (Source: MTA)

The governance of public transit in Greater Baltimore limits its ability to address those regional transportation needs. Of the 50 largest transit agencies in the country, Baltimore’s is the only one that is governed and operated by a state agency without a board of directors.[...] The local governments in the Baltimore region do not directly contribute funding to the transit services the state provides.
Unfortunately, under this governance structure, metropolitan Baltimore’s public transportation system has not kept pace with repair and service needs nor has seen a new rapid transit line in more than two decades.

ENO points out that Baltimore does not contribute to the area transit cost. In that it is unique, since the surrounding jurisdictions such as Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford Counties get operational aid from MTA but contribute to their capital and operational expenses to varying degrees. Baltimore, of course, runs its own Circulator bus, largely funded out of City funds. ENO suggest that the hodge-podge of local systems should be integrate into one system if a regional authority would run it. 

While funding of a regional authority would still come mostly from the State Trust Fund, the aspect of increased local contributions may very well lower Baltimore's excitement about this model. 

The Capital Rail Vision

Finally the rail vision plan which isn't strictly a Baltimore area plan. It proposes to integrate Maryland's MARC commuter trains and Virginia's VRE trains which current each terminate at Union Station in DC. MTA's MARC trains were the agency's flagship service with rising ridership and the fastest commuter trains in the country (top speeds above 100mph). It is tempting to look at how this service could penetrate the nation's capital better and potentially even reach up to the Philadelphia commter rail system as well.

The Capital Region Rail Vision seizes on recent wins for the region’s rail network and charts a course for a transformed rail system that offers seamless, all day connections that span the Potomac River and rail operators to connect Maryland, the District, and Virginia and deliver a globally competitive system that takes the Capital Region to new heights.

But oh, have things changed! A recent presentation by MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn cast a light on the current conditions. Like in transit across the country, MTA lost riders in droves, nearly 90% for rail services and commuter buses and about 50% for local buses. With such devastation in the commuter rail ridership, it isn't likely that this vision will get much traction any time soon, even though a State bill introduced last year, already asked to study how MARC service could be extended to DC's L'Enfant Plaza, currently only served by VRE. 

The Capital Region Commuter Rail system

The high ridership losses on MARC come from our region's high dependency on government work, especially for commuters riding MARC to DC. Almost all this work is now done virtually and it is quite unclear to what extent in person work will return even once COVID is in the rear view mirror.

Commuter rail is hugely important for the well being of the Baltimore region, which is dependent on participating in the much healthier capital economy. In spite of the cratering passenger numbers, it is the time to fully appreciate the importance of high capacity trains that connect our region. They should be more than a conduit for federal workers. Instead of wasting energy on far fetched boondoggles such as MagLev and Hyperloop, the focus of our regions must now be how to replace the missing federal commuters with everyday riders that currently clog the streets. 

The "captive ridership" trap 

Common wisdom has it that the pandemic accelerates and magnifies trends that were detectable long before the pandemic. Certainly true for transit: The increase in ridership that had followed the financial crisis of 2008 has long reverted back to the steady loss of transit's share that has been underway for as long as mass motorization. The future of transit depends on reverting this trend in the name of climate change and a better quality of life in our road congested and air polluted region. 

In spite of  the pandemic and the associated fear of sharing a space with others, in spite of work from home, closed schools and closed government offices, nearly 100,000 people still use the buses every day! This means, tons of "front line" or "essential" workers depend on transit for getting to work! If these employees, nurses, sanitation workers, shop clerks, check-out personnel, construction workers, delivery drivers, or warehouse workers couldn't get to their jobs, our society wouldn't function anymore and all those who get by without touching transit would have a rude awakening. 

Zurich trams: Not spectacular but reliable (Photo: Philipsen)

In fact, Baltimore's transit dependent population is higher and the 50% ridership in loss is smaller than that of many other cities. This points to Baltimore's high poverty rates and the large inequality and inequity in this city. Protecting these riders has become a clarion call for those who demand more equity. The observation that transit is a necessity is not new, though. However, in the past it was seen as a trap if agencies would simply rely on "captive riders" for whom transit is a last resort. 

As a result transit agencies have tried to attract "choice riders" (meaning riders that have a choice), often by building rail service which had a higher acceptance than buses. This approach has come into the cross hairs of the equity discussion. Posh new suburban light rail systems were increasingly derided as "white rail" and as an inequitable shift of resources away from overburdened and underserved communities where transit is truly needed. Attracting choice riders was criticised as some type of trickle down approach in which the new attractive services should eventually improve bus service as well. On the other hand, it is probably true that transit won't excel unless broader segments of the population have some "skin in the game", best by being transit users themselves.  

Who can tele-work? Source: MTA

The master precedent for attracting "choice riders" had been Zurich, Switzerland, interestingly Zurich was successful after it rejected very expensive new underground lines that would have done away with its narrow gauge trams in the streets and opted for making those trams an investment priority instead. Only after the transit agency resolved that it wanted to improve its existing system but didn't want to be just a service of last resort, did the service really improve. Making existing trams and buses more reliable, cleaner and operating them with use of state of the art technology and giving transit priority in the narrow streets of the city made it one of the best systems worldwide. That approach had been very successful and today, all segments of the population rub shoulders in the many tram lines around the city. 

What needs to be done?

Considering COVID, equity and the Zurich experience  raises many questions for Baltimore's transit future beyond the noted transit plans.  

  1. How can the region respond effectively to climate change? What role must transit play in that?
  2. How can transit help to reduce the inequities in the region by providing much better job access without breaking the bank?
  3. How can transit service respond to continued migration of jobs away from the traditional job centers? 
  4. How can transit become attractive beyond the existing "insider" circle of those who are familar with the system and all its indignities? Good transit has to be attractive to transit dependent riders and choice riders alike. 

MTA and the City of Baltimore have started many good initiatives: 

  • a fairer distribution of the existing street space through miles of bus only lanes and many cases of signal priority which have broken with the tradition of traffic planning that always prioritized the car over everything else. 
    The new MTA Nova Bus being rolled out now

  • MTA's buses have become "smarter" and MTA's dispatch folks as well as riders can usually find where any bus is at any given moment. 
  • The bus fleet is in the process of being renewed and MARC, light rail and Metro also have seen upgrades for their rolling stock (or will see it in 2021, in the case of Metro). 
  • MTA is preparing for a regional fare system where riders could use a single ticket on various transit providers in the region. 
Problems remain:
  • Service remains slow and unreliable and trips too time consuming as CMTA's transit report card shows. The other deficits contribute to this: 
  • A poor state of repair for tracks, signals and stations, slowing things down. 
  • Insufficient number of buses, especially when break downs are frequent
  • Insufficient number of operators, especially when COVID increases the sick rates

Only money can alleviate these deficiencies, no matter who runs the system or how ridership will develop after COVID.  Severe service cuts taking out essential lifelines for underserved and overburdened communities must remain off the table. The Maryland Transit Safety and Investment Act will be key to the needed funding as well as the second COVID aid package that Congress just stitched together. It is anticipated to contain about $120 for Maryland Transit.

The Efficiency solutions: Better land use and demand based transit service

There are perspectives beyond money, namely how land use and transit service can be brought into better alignment. Better land use by the local jurisdictions  via zoning and land management around the existing transit stations (rail) and bus lines would be the kind of support any transit agency needs to flourish. Although the connection between land use and transportation has been understood for decades, there has been little or no action in the Baltimore region to do anything about the fact that the land around rail stations is usually not at all "transit oriented" but is characterized by abandonment, disinvestment, low density and auto centric uses that don't bring any riders to transit. Masterplans and development plans need to recognize the presence of a transit station as an asset. The fact that in our region state money has funded transit and the stations has enabled local government to pretty much ignore those assets. 

Typical suburban land use pattern (Graphic: Kittelson)

A case in point is the Lutherville Light Rail station in which vicinity a shopping center has seen four different big box users since the station was built. None presented "transit oriented development", all failed one way or another. Recently the site was bought by developers just before it would have been auctioned off. What will happen now? There is no adopted local plan that would mandate a transit friendly use. 

The same is pretty much true up and down all stations of MARC, Metro and Light Rail.  The famed exceptions are Owings Mills for Metro, Symphony Center and Clipper Mill for Light Rail and the Dorsey Road and Odenton Stations for MARC, all examples which deviate in many respects from optimal TOD.

With better land use and a broader service menu, efficiency could be achieved, ideally without much new capital. This requires action on both sides:

  • Intensified use around existing rail stations all across the map can bring additional riders to transit and out of cars. Putting development and jobs in areas that are well served by transit rather than out where transit is impractical is by far the most cost effective option for sustainable economic development
  • A further diversified transit service menu must be considered by MTA to serve the many lower density areas in our region to to provide service during "slow" hours. The menu must include services that are not the traditional fixed-route, fixed-service model that is the base of all existing MTA service except Paratransit/Mobility. 
  • The operational service alternative is a demand-based system that runs when and where needed, replacing costly mostly empty buses circulating on routes with low ridership. Mobility-Paratransit is already a "demand-based" service that adjusts for demand and moves off fixed routes to the doors of users and their destinations.
  • A cash free integrated fare payment system across all modes and the entire region which would allow buses to be faster since operators would not have to wait until everybody paid on board.
A demand based system doesn't have to be a train or bus and it doesn't have to be owned by MTA. It could be cars that would operate like taxis or ride share with pick up of additional riders along the way. It could be a van type demand responsive service as it is popular in South America and Turkey. Eventually, once regulations are adjusted, it could even be a broader use of the existing Mobility/Paratransit fleet. Covering "last mile" service, late night and weekend hours on low density routes could bring riders to the transit system who haven't used the system to date. 

The State of transit may not be good. But with the most progressive MTA team in generations in place, a new Mayor, and progressive Executives in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel Counties a breakthrough towards a better future could be possible, in spite of the rough year behind us. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Miracle on Lexington Street?

Just when the handwringing over failing urban retail and deserted office towers and what it all could mean for the future of cities becomes ever more desperate, news reach us that the most dormant urban block in all of downtown Baltimore could have finally found a prince that kisses it back to life.

The "superblock" sitting dormant since 2003 (Photo: Philipsen)
Jay Brodie was still heading the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), the Mayor was O'Malley and today's high school graduates were just being born. The year was 2003 and BDC thought that the renaissance of Baltimore's once premier retail center that BDC had dubbed the "Westside" would be best served with another one of those heavy-handed big-on-government procedures that had been popular in the previous century under the name of urban renewal. In that top-down approach government obtains all the properties in a large area, sometimes through condemnation ("eminent domain"), vacates them and then comes up with a big redevelopment scheme. Those redevelopments often eliminated the fine-grained urban fabric in favor of so called superblocks which were considered more efficient. 

Superblock corner Howard and Fayette Street (Photo: Philipsen)
Originally eminent domain power had been only used for public projects such as railroads and highways, but eventually it had become common practice that government would take the land and sell it right away to a private developer. ("land disposition"). The public interest to justify that approach had become couched in the terms of "slum and blight removal" and eventually simply as "economic development". In this manner BDC offered the entire land between Lexington Street and Fayette Street from Park Avenue to Howard Street up in a "request for proposals" in 2003.  Some merchants who were still active in many mostly marginal stores were not happy, but didn't have much of a voice. Even the famed Hippodrome hatters in the earlier developed superblock called "CenterPoint" had not succeeded in saving their historic hat store. (They got relocated into a new store in the rebuilt block, operated it a few years and then gave up. Other retailers in the block still struggle in maintaining viability.) 

Today, with systemic racism in planning much on our mind, most have a very dim view of urban renewal; too often it had meant removal of the poor, of blacks and of small businesses in favor of a restructured city in which developers and chain stores would benefit while the poor would go empty. 
Jay Brodie on Jan 10 when demolition began at the Weinberg block 
(Photo: Philipsen) 

Not that in 2003 old-style urban renewal was still all the rage either; this method had already run its course in the 1960s and 70s. That is why BDC's use of the term "superblock" was so puzzling. So was their approach which was in so many ways reminiscent of past failures. Even in a reflection that the long retired Jay Brodie wrote in the BBJ this July, his critique didn't touch on his own decision to go the superblock route, but focused on Mayor Rawlings-Blake instead. She  eventually followed the advice of the national ULI Advisory Team in 2013 and pulled the plug on the development team which had not produced any progress in 10 years of having had the exclusive rights to the site. Brodie wrote: 

Seven years later, reflecting on those events, I believe that was the City of Baltimore's worst-ever urban redevelopment decision. It was legal, but it was immoral. (Brodie)

Demolition of the Weinberg block
(Photo: Philipsen)
There is not much point in re-litigating the past in this manner, except for finding a suitable way forward. In their RFP from 2019 the superblock had been split in half, both halves being offered at the same time. The project was still couched in terms of economic development:

The City of Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), on behalf of the Mayor of Baltimore (the “City”), through this Request for Proposals (RFP), is seeking written proposals from developers experienced with adaptive reuse and new construction in historic districts for the purchase and redevelopment of City-owned property located in the Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District (“Bromo Arts District”). The intent of this RFP is to promote redevelopment of these parcels (herein referred to as “the Site”) in a fashion that will achieve the City’s objectives including job generation, tax generation and mixed-use development that fits within the context of the Bromo Arts District – an emerging neighborhood with active storefronts and other ground-level uses.

The properties have been bundled into three assemblages (See diagram in Section III, Site Description). Developers can bid on one, two or all three assemblages. The Site is within the Market Center National Register Historic District and the Five and Dime Baltimore City Historic District. Reasonable effort should be made to preserve and repurpose historically contributing buildings.(BDC RFP in 2019)

Restored buildings 400 block of Howard Street (Photo: Philipsen)

The selection of another development team 17 years later will only truly become a "miracle on Lexington Street" if the new approach (still containing 19 properties) is somehow a less heavy lift with a higher likelihood of finding community support and the necessary funding to turn the plans into reality. Kimberly Clarke, Deputy at BDC, is optimistic. She told the SUN: 

“It’s so exciting, for me, to see something significant happening here. We’re solidifying the fact that this can be considered a true neighborhood.”(SUN)

The glacial pace of moving such a large project in Baltimore cannot only be seen in the 17 year history since the first request for proposals in 2003, but also in this latest RFP: Issued in March 2019 and splitting the site into two halves, it took over 1.5 years to whittle proposals down to six proposals and then select the winning team! By comparison, Denver built a full and vibrant new city quarter around its Union Station in less than 15 years. 

A new Lexington Market rising (Photo: Philipsen)

The selected development team consists of two partner firms, Landmark of Baltimore and Vitruvius of Pittsburgh. Chris Janian, the founder of Vitruvius was a Development Executive at H&S Properties Development in Baltimore. The development team proposes to develop the entire block. Gensler is to be the architect; a rendering of the project showing the former Read's Drug store in the foreground had been prepared by SM&P Architects in Baltimore. The project is said to cost more than a $100 million and supposed to be realized in phases. BDC hasn't put a press release on their website in years and there is nothing about this selection. 

Sparse info can be found on the agenda for the Board of Estimates.  It has to approve the "Land Disposition Agreement" states that  "The concept includes market-rate rental housing, retail, office, co-working, artist live/work-space, an entertainment venue, and a hotel."  The local Landmark team is currently redeveloping the former Grand Central club in Mt Vernon and slated to develop the currently vacant site with the saved former Martick's building on Mulberry Street. Neither firm appears to have developed any project on the same scale before, not counting the H&S projects. 

The team calls their project Compass and says this on their own website:

The Compass will bridge the divide between the Central Business District, Mt. Vernon, and the Westside, jump-starting more creative development in the once thriving area. More than that, the impact-driven development, dynamic programming, incorporation of the arts, and local tenant mix will respect the buildings’ and neighborhood’s historic fabric, interspersing history with modern, timeless design. (Vitruvius Website)
Luckily the Westside, as a whole, has not stagnated in the same way as the Superblock area in those last 17 years. As Jay Brodie notes in his BBJ reminiscence, there have been at least 2,500 apartments completed, such as Center Point, the Atrium, the old BGE Headquarters, the Abell building, Camden Court, the L on Liberty and now the Four Ten Lofts on Mulberry Street and the University Lofts on Paca Street, both still under construction.
Four Ten lofts at Eutaw and Mulberry nearing completion (Photo: Philipsen)

The old Hippodrome movie theater was transformed into the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center and there are plans to do something behind the fa├žade of the old Mayfair theatre. The area is now one of Baltimore's five Arts and Entertainment Districts. Dubbed "the Bromo", it features the Everyman Theater, the Mondo event space, various galleries and will soon have a brand-new Lexington Market. Almost the entire east side of the 400 block of Howard Street has been renovated, more construction is underway on the west side of the same block. The Mount Vernon Market and the Park Avenue Apartments are technically located in Mt Vernon, but they sure had a revitalizing effect on the Market Center District to the south (the "Westside").

Should the construction and rehabilitation of the Superblock really begin in 2022, it would fill a giant void and potentially be the project that really moves the former retail district over the hump for good.  Then it would also become finally time for the Weinberg Foundation to act on the land they cleared on the north side of Lexington Street in 2010. Their promise was always: "We will go after the superblock".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Other articles about the Westside and the Superblock on this blog:

Board of Estimates meeting 12-2-20 for approval of land
disposition. Last meeting of Comptroller Joan Pratt

The Superblock - new hope after 11 years of waiting (2015)

390 feet tall in the historic Westside (2015) still only a hole

Big Government, Big Retail, Big Renewal – How Big is Too Big? (2012)

Westside Stories 2 (2011)

Westside Stories 1 (2010)