Saturday, June 24, 2023

How the Governor and MTA want to get the Red Line done

The Governor's Announcement

When the charismatic Governor stepped up to the podium seconds after the begin of the much touted event about the Red Line the first parking lot of the West Baltimore MARC station was filled with dignitaries of all stripes from federal to local. They peered against the sun with a full view of the MTA bus hub and Amtrak and MARC trains passing through the station. Moore wasted no time and got straight to his message: 

Governor Moore announcing Red Line restart
(Photo Philipsen)
This is a day that we’ve spent weeks planning for –A day my partners and I in government have spent months preparing for And a day that many Marylanders have spent years hoping for. Today I am proud to announce that we are officially getting the Red Line moving again here in Baltimore (Governor Wes Moore).
 But in his short talk the Governor also said this: "While we are grateful for the effort in years past" that went into this project "this initiative is not about pulling something off the shelf and plug and play". He spoke about "keeping a keen eye on very meaningful societal shifts" and invited the people of Baltimore "this is the time to leave your mark" on this project. 

In a WBAL interview with MTA Administrator Holly Arnold elaborated on next steps: 

"We need to hear from the community, what do they want, do they want Light Rail or do they want Bus Rapid Transit, ...We are looking at a tunnel downtown and surface running  options"  (Holly Arnold on WBAL)

As happy as transit proponents can be about this shift in State transit policy towards expansion, the discrepancy between getting the Red Line moving again and the warning that this won't be "plug and play" combined with the invitation for open ended questions about mode and alignment leaves many questions about how much this is really a revival of the Red Line versus a distant new project in the same corridor. Mayor Scott expressed the situation clearly when he bemoaned that "today we should be cutting ribbons" and board trains, instead we are standing here with another announcement, however happy he was about that the project is slated for restart.

MTA Administrator Holly Arnold
(Photo Philipsen)

The New Starts Process 

While "plug and play" seems logical as the quickest way of getting the project back on track, just dusting off the old project is not a feasible option, says Holly Arnold. It would run afoul of the requirements of the Federal Transit Administration overseeing a federally funded "New Starts" project. To get back into the New Starts process, the old "Record of Decision" has to be "earned" anew since the old one is no longer valid. 

The Record of Decision (ROD) is the conclusion of the NEPA EIS process. The ROD document is prepared after the final EIS and identifies the Preferred Alternative. The NEPA implementing regulations (40 CFR § 1505.2) state that a Record of Decision should contain:
  1. Statement of FTA’s environmental decision
  2. Identification of all alternatives considered by the agency, including the preferred alternative(s)
  3. Decision of all factors – economic, social, technical, environmental factors, financial considerations, and other New Starts considerations (23 CFR Part 771.127(a)).
  4. Discussion of national policies that were balanced in the decisionmaking process and how each factor weighted in the decision
  5. Explanation of whether the decision was designed to avoid or minimize environmental harm and, if not, why not

As MTA Administrator Arnold explains, data have to be updated leading up to a evaluation including a new "cost effectiveness" calculation, basically a cost-benefit analysis. As a first step the cost of the existing design would be escalated to a new expected construction period and the benefits be updated with new data, especially for ridership modeling, job access and equity as well as the expected travel time savings compared to the current baseline. According to Arnold, this work is well underway but it is too early to share the estimated new cost or the updated cost effectiveness.

The New Starts evaluation rating elements

Should the cost effectiveness ratio come out too low, it would be necessary to either reduce cost or boost projected benefits, namely ridership. That is where local government can play a big role by through transit supportive land use near stations which boosts ridership through maximal transit oriented development (TOD). Land use is one of the project evaluation criteria. On the cost side changes to the design may be needed to lower the construction cost, such as less tunnel which constitutes the lion share of the cost. Even bus instead of rail may be considered again.  Administrator Arnold describes a path that will try to use as much as possible from the previous design while also making the project  defensible under FTA's criteria. 

Once a plausible and qualifying transit solution is found, it would become the "locally preferred alternative" (LPA) and the project could be put on the New Starts bandwagon again for a new Record of Decision and eventually a Full Funding Grant Agreement.

The Schedule

So, even in the best case that the old design would still pass all tests, a shovel can't get into the ground anytime soon, even though that is precisely what transit proponents would like to see. 

Next steps display at the Red Line event (MTA)

Arnold expects the selection of a LPA in early 2024, not too far out, if that timeframe proves to be realistic. The promised study of an extension to Tradepoint Atlantic would run on its own schedule, but would eventually be also part of a New Starts process. 

The last time around the process from conception to cancellation of the near shovel ready project took 13 years. Secretary Wiedefeld and Administrator Arnold want shave off much time by using an abbreviated process called a "supplemental NEPA document", not an all new environmental study and report (EIS). The supplemental approach  focusses on what has changed since the last Record of Decision

Arnold assures that MDOT and MTA are closely working with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) on how to navigate such an expedited process and are "constantly thinking creatively" about the fastest path forward. Maybe one way of acceleration could be to decouple certain up-front aspects of the project from federal funding, but that option wasn't mentioned by MTA at this point.  Current steps include hiring new consultants as needed to define, review and potentially design alternatives as they may be necessary to reduce cost or adjust to changed conditions.

The Challenges

From my 13 years on the Red Line team, I would identify at least six challenges that require a  creative approach:

  1. How to stick with the "supplemental" approach that updates demographic, economic and employment data as well as cost to whatever shifts there have been since 2013 when the last alignment decision had been made without slipping into the territory of an all new EIS.
    The new Red Line: How much is it like the old Red Line? 
    (MTA Display Board)

  2. How to bring the project back into the federal "New Starts" transit queue without being placed all the way at the back of the line. This type of queue jumping would be aided by language our congressional delegation put into the infrastructure bill, but it would be unprecedented. Besides, the 2015 estimate of $2.95 billion for a completion in 2022 would be more like $3.9 billion with a at least 10 year escalation.
  3. How to ensure that the local partners (Baltimore City and County) become active partners instead of bystanders as especially the County had been in the last round. Locals have to preserve the right of way and make transit supportive land use decisions such as implementation of some of the station area community vision plans developed during the Red Line planning process which were part of the creative Community Compact between MTA, City, County, non-profits and communities. For local government to become reliable partners in the Red Line revival the Mayor and the Executive need to appoint Red Line specialists who pay undivided attention to this project. 
  4. How to transfer the previous design and engineering of tracks, tunnels, stations and the maintenance facility as intact as possible to a new set of engineers and transportation planners without spending $270 million again  before the new teams become "comfotable" and are willing to assume the liabilities that come from signing off on a design. 
    County Executive Olszewski at the Red Line
    announcement event (Photo Philipsen)

  5. 5. How to include communities as partners without opening the floodgates to all kinds of new ideas, rumors and groups that prefer anything but what is proposed as the baseline design.  According to Arnold, MTA thinks of reviving the "community compact" introduced under Mayor Dixon and potentially remobilize the station advisory groups which had prepared vision plans for most station areas. 
  6. 6. How to construct and finance the line? In 2015 it was assumed that about half of the project would be constructed by a design-build contract in the P3 mode (Public-private partnership) and the other half in the traditional design-bid-build mode. By contrast the Purple Line was offered entirely as a P3 with a private contractor refining the MTA offered design, then build and operate it and finance a portion of it. The high hopes that this would be a faster and less risky process have long been dashed with the Purple line experiencing one cost overrun and schedule delay after another. No they haven't cut any ribbons yet either. It will be interesting to see how MDOT Secretary Wiedefeld and Governor Moore assess the P3 option.
It is useful to remember that the Red Line was designed to run almost entirely in public "right of way" and that it doesn't require condemnation or demolition of houses. Complete Streets policies, now fully endorsed by the City, should make the integration of transit easier, since complete streets means a recognition of all modes, walking, rolling, taking transit and driving. A project being realized almost entirely in the public domain should be easier than one that requires a lot of land purchases and easements. 

Still, in the last round the late baker and developer John Paterakis managed to force a station relocation so that the entry and exit of the Harbor East underground station would not have to be carved out of a corner of his property. This caused a crucial delay in 2013/14. In this round, the feds, the State, local government, private business and communities need to really support all aspects of the project to make it happen.

The restart of a project that is at least 14 miles long and had years of extensive public debate must focus on regional connectivity and not on minor local animosities. That is easier said than done: As in any larger infrastructure project, it is no problem to bring NIMBYs to the table and far more difficult to gather the support of the beneficiaries, i.e. future and current transit riders. 

Still, even with a better understanding of the mandated procedures, three of the things Moore and Arnold mentioned publicly require special scrutiny: 

  • "Meaningful societal shifts"

Yes, a lot of things have happened since 2013, notably the triple Baltimore handicaps that all came in 2015: The death of Freddie Gray in police custody and the unrest in the wake of it,  the State orchestrated termination of the State Center Project and the cancellation of the Red Line. Finally COVID that changed travel behavior significantly. Still, none of this makes the preferred Red Line alignment selected 10 years ago any less necessary, viable, or desirable. Even the temporarily sagging ridership figures slowly approach pre-Covid levels according to MTA.

The only really "new" thing might be the unexpectedly successful TradePoint Atlantic which already brought express bus service to that location. It made the County Executive request the extension of the Red Line to the old Sparrows Point area. Moore already promised that this would be studied. However, even this wouldn't constitute a material change to the existing Red Line plans which had all along included the notion of a future extension to Dundalk. 

Concept design for a new MARC Station (MTA/Amtrak)

Two other "shifts" are worth noting: Possibilities for transforming the "Highway to Nowhere" are much improved thanks to a $2 million federal "Reconnecting Communities" grant.  Secondly, the new Frederick Douglass Tunnel is now partially funded with an initial $450 million tranche for design and construction of some small up front parts. The new tunnel replaces the old B&P tunnel ending just north of the West Baltimore MARC station which connects to the Red Line. 

Both of these aspects are not jeopardizing the old Red Line design but allow the Red Line to become part of the precisely the type of catalytic change that the adjacent communities have long sought in the station area committees and elsewhere. MTA has begun conceptual design sketches visualizing the possible MARC station design within the existing Amtrak design contract.

  • BRT or LRT

BRT and LRT as alternative modes have been studied extensively as part of the 13 years of Red Line investigations. During the time of the Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich Bus Rapid Transit was the preferred mode and being explored in great detail. Comparative analysis showed that in the end a BRT in a tunnel is more expensive to build and to operate than light rail.  Buses tend to break down more often than electric trains and need bypass lanes at stations to get around stalled vehicles. Seattle found this out when they initially built downtown BRT tunnels and later gave up on further bus tunnels. and expand their system with only LRT.  BRT s more expensive in operation because the currently available buses don't have the same capacity as LRT trains and therefore require more vehicles and operators unless they would run fully automated. Urban transit with no transit staff on board is technologically possible, but hardly acceptable to riders in the foreseeable future.

  • Surface or tunnel

Surface running or tunneling was also extensively studied, for both BRT and LRT. It was the prevailing professional consensus that a full surface option would either be very slow (think Howard Street light rail) when running in mixed traffic or it would be very intrusive, when running in exclusive right of way. This would be especially true on Cooks Lane and Aliceanna Streets, where exclusive transit lanes 

Initial Red Line rendering for Edmondson Avenue: The original
Red Line was designed to be entirely in its own right of way.
would hardly be acceptable to the residents and businesses, since those streets are too tight to allow designated transit lanes, car traffic, and parking to coexist in any meaningful way. 

BRT proponents should also consider that we already have designated bus lanes in many places and must realize that they do not work in the same way as tracks in a designated area.


It is clear that conquering all these challenges and still get the project expedited for construction requires a tight rope walk. Not falling off the rope requires a unified voice that rallies around the already preferred, selected and designed and once fully approved project. This unified voice was briefly visible at the event in West Baltimore when speaker after speaker touted the Red Line as the best thing to move forward with. Adjustments to make the project defensible under FTA criteria should not be understood as a free for all to dust off the skirmishes from 10 years ago, especially not old hats that had already been refuted as unrealistic back then. While a few things have changed, Baltimore ist still Baltimore and the East West challenge remains essentially the same.

The unified voice is the only one that will be here in Washington. It will have to be loud and clear to overcome  the formidable obstacles of line jumping and financing that currently stand in the way of  straight up "plug and play".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

the article has been updated to include the P3 discussion.

The national publication The American Prospect wrote bout the Baltimore Red Line in this June '23 article 

Maryland Matters wrote about reviving the Red Line in this June 23 article

Previous articles about the Red Line on this blog:

Is there a better Red Line? (June'23)

Recycling bad ideas for the Red Line (Sept 2017)

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Is there a better Red Line?

Baltimore Red Line map (tunnel sections dashed)

The stars for bringing back the Red Line seem to align with Governor Moore and MDOT Secretary Wiedefeld in favor of it and the federal government setting aside large amounts of money for transit and infrastructure. In fact, Governor Moore is scheduled to make an east-west transit announcement on June 15 at the West Baltimore MARC station. 

Is it also the right time to open a discussion about alternatives? A group previously opposed to the Red Line thinks so. They came out with a concept they dubbed "Smart Line" last month (see below). 

Smart Line
A Community-Led Proposal for Baltimore's Newest Public Transportation Line
East-West Heavy Rail (Subway) Done in 5 Phases to "Get the Red Line Done"

The proposal was created with the tremendous assistance of an exceptional volunteer technical advisory team, with over 100 years of experience in bringing city and state transportation projects to fruition. As many of you know, our community of Midtown-Edmondson is one of the most disinvested in the state, yet we also sit directly on one of Maryland's most underutilized transportation assets: the West Baltimore MARC Station. One of the keys to unlocking the potential of that station was always going to be rapid east-west rail. But also critical was going to be how well we maximize the benefits from careful coordination of the other large projects slated for our area, including:
  • West Baltimore MARC Station redesign/rebuild
  • Route 40 Highway to Nowhere reimagine
  • Douglass/B&P Tunnel Project
  • Future Transit-Oriented Developments 

Smart Line is our effort to spark a robust conversation about how to do just that. And... to upscale our vision - not just for the West Baltimore MARC Station, not just for east-west rail, but for the limitless potential of Central West Baltimore overall. 

The announcement sounds innocent enough, who doesn't want "smart"? The "press release" even says in its title "Get the Red Line done" as if the group were really in favor of the Red Line. As with those alternative energy providers pretending to be BGE, though, the truth resides in the fine print, in this case the various tabs of the Smart Line's website.  The  group does nothing else than peddling an old hat, specifically the same idea the same people already promoted when the Red Line was in planning. The idea that was dismissed back then for its impracticality and it hasn't become any more practical or feasible now. The gist of the idea: Use the existing Metro tunnel in downtown and extend it to the West Baltimore MARC going west and to Bayview going east by running the line along the Amtrak tracks just north of the EBDI area. This would save the new tunnels under downtown and Fells Point proposed in the Red Line design that Hogan killed. Of course, it would be intriguing to save all the new and expensive tunnel construction. If it were easy to do, the Red Line plans which were developed by a national team of experts over 13 years, in the homestretch under the lead of AECOM, one of the world's largest architecture-engineering teams with rail transit experience worldwide. 

"Smart Rail" doesn't mention a recently completed renewed east-west corridor study. Not mentioned either is that a version of their idea of extending Metro "heavy rail" instead of building new "light rail" made it as one of the alternatives into study which was initiated when Hogan was still Governor. That study looked once again at a full set of alternatives how to best run east-west transit, presumably with the notion that things may be different in 2022 than in the decade before. 

Seven alternatives were evaluated, one (alternative 6) being virtually identical to the Red Line. Alternative 3 looked at metro extensions similar to the group's proposal, except it never took Metro as far west as this group now proposes. Here is the clincher: Unlike what the group claims, the corridor study shows that even the shorter Metro extension included uin the study would not be saving money. Instead it was the highest cost alternative. That is not surprising, because "heavy rail" subways (those that use the third rail to get electric power) are by far the most expensive way to build transit. What the "Smart Rail" concept would save on tunnel costs downtown it would more then spend again on a connecting tunnel that is needed to get from the Lexington Market station to the Highway to Nowhere. Not to mention the tunnels that are needed west of the West Baltimore MARC station, and leaving entirely unaddressed how such a subway would traverse the Gwynns Falls valley which is currently spanned by the recently fully rebuilt route 40 viaduct. The new bridhe was designed to allow surface light rail (which takes its power from overhead and can run in streets) to traverse on its new and wider deck. 

"Smart Line" suggested map (website) 
The group couches its old hat in new arguments: Namely that their plan would address the Highway to Nowhere grant which the City received under the title "Reconnecting Communities" and the new West Baltimore MARC station necessitated by the new Amtrak tunnel that is offset from the old B&P tunnel which ends slightly north of the existing MARC station. The reality is, "Smart Rail" Metro would run  in the wide median of the Highway to Nowhere trench just as the Red Line. Transit in the median had been envisioned when that highway monstrosity had originally been designed in the 1970s. 

However, anybody familiar with the 13 years of Red Line planning and design knows, that both, the Highway to Nowhere and the West Baltimore MARC station were already addressed in the original  Red Line plans. T Red Line Community Advisory Groups (SAACs) of Harlem Park, Poppleton and West Baltimore MARC clearly requested mitigation of the US 40 trench and a better MARC station as well. That the new B&P tunnel would push the station further south allowing it to be fully accessible was well known before 2015.  By contrast, the "Smart Line" group shows the station in its current location which is impossible with the new Amtrak tunnels as designed.

the West Baltimore MARC SAAC envisions their future Red line Station to be a regional intermodal transit destination and major TOD opportunity, as well as a commercial center for the surrounding communities. the SAAC is committed to creating a greater sense of place by leveraging the new MARC Station and Red line to foster new development and create a better community...Future development could help make the MARC Station look like a real station. Future development could include the Bentalou school site and various underutilized factory buildings. A transit hub with mixed-use retail and housing surrounding the new platform locations between Franklin Street and Warwick Avenue would connect with the Red line at a plaza located on the current MARC parking lot between Franklin, Mulberry and Smallwood Streets. (Vision Plan)

The "Smart Rail" group makes several other claims in their announcement and on their website that should give any informed person pause, including that: 

  • the group "crafted with the guidance and expertise of a volunteer technical advisory team that has, collectively, over a century of experience in bringing city and state transportation projects to fruition". and that 
  • the proposed Red Line is a $6 billion project where the tunnel alone is cited as costing $3 billion. The reality is that the people named on the website are not really transit experts, none of them are engineers. The actual cost estimate for the Red Line was slightly under $3 billion assuming cost for the then envisioned construction period after 2015 and including a hefty contingency for the fully nearly engineered tunnels following the stringent rules of the federal transit administration for those estimates. It was Hogan, the Red Line slayer, who always doubted the cost estimate without a shred of evidence that anything on the estimate wasn't on the up and up. 
  • The group also claims that their proposal is based on "community desire". In reality none of  the communities of Poppleton, Harlem Park and around the West Baltimore MARC were involved. Those groups have worked for many months as part of the "Reconnecting Communities" grant to be active players in the transformation of the "Highway to Nowhere" in collaboration with the City and the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition. The sole community representative on the "smart line" group is from the Edmondson Avenue corridor. 

In short, the "smart" rail is not so smart after all and essentially nothing but a distraction. The really smart way is to focus on reviving the already engineered and fully studied Red Line and avoiding all additional delays that would come from re-engineering and a completely new environmental impact studies.

Klaus Philipsen FAIA

the article was edited for clarity on 6/5/23

Surprise! Gov. Hogan opens door to Red Line revival (but only slightly) |  COMMENTARY
Red Line station in a tunnel. Light Rail can act like a subway in a tunnel but also run in streets and
cross other streets thanks to its overhead wires. Metro style "heavy rail" runs with third rail power precluding
road crossings

When the Smart Rail group asked me to comment on their "Smart Line" concept I wrote them the below response which want to share here:

Thanks for sharing and asking for my thoughts, I realize you are trying once again to mobilize for something different than the previously approved and engineered Red Line. 

That in itself will bring a repeat of where we have been before, splitting the proponents of rail transit investment into competing factions.  This was precisely  why it was easier for Hogan to kill the Red Line than the Purple Line.  At this historic juncture with Biden/ Buttigeg on the federal and Moore and Wiedefeld on the State level as well as the Mayor and the County Exec as Red Line proponents on the local level, asking for anything different than the already engineered Red Line will sow confusion and blunt the effort of getting the project done after all. 

The proposed project is just the same that has been proposed by Gerry Neilly, you and others back when the Red Line was planned and it has been refuted then for the same reasons that are still applicable:Running heavy rail transit from the US 40 corridor into the existing tunnel is neither easy nor cheap. The statement "no new tunnel" is flat-out false, a new tunnel would be indeed, needed. The $1b cost the FAQ states [on your own website]  seems to reflect that. This alignment, even for just phase 1, would need all new engineering and a brand new EIS.  The effort of tying into the existing tunnel would bring serious disruption to the existing Metro service just when it is ready for reliable service after rail and vehicle upgrades. The MTA did develop a "white paper" on this topic.
  1. The proposal appears to be silent on how heavy rail would have to be constructed in the corridor of route 40/Cooks Lane unless it's all tunnel. Heavy rail does not allow at grade crossings and the wider vehicles would not fit into the corridor on the surface. 
  2. The entire burgeoning waterfront area with the redeveloped Perkins Homes and all the other new development would not be connected. 
  3. The heavy rail extensions beyond Hopkins are uncharted territory that have been proposed previously but have not seen engineering or careful analysis. It would be surely easier to create additional MARC stations here than running third rail metro.
  4. The proposal was included as option 3 in the east west corridor study (with the western end as BRT) and did not rank well on several aspects, especially cost (even with BRT instead of heavy rail on the western end). To say the "Smart Rail"  alternative would be "cheaper" or faster than the original Red Line is disingenuous The FAQ segment online mentions in passing a $6b cost for the Red Line as previously proposed, i.e. more than twice the cost that was actually anticipated in 2015, including all contingencies and escalations for the then envisioned construction period. Your $6b cost figure is unsubstantiated and irresponsible. 
Overall I am very disappointed that you guys keep putting out the same old distraction at a time when more than ever we need unity to get something done.


Maryland Matters reported about the Baltimore Smart Line here.

A thorough article about the Baltimore Red Line appeared in national publication The American Prospect this month.