Friday, August 1, 2014

Why Right Rail is Wrong, and Right

The Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda of the Red Line:

Part of 2002 transit plan

When the Red Line was first proposed in 2002 the decision on the exact route and transportation mode were far from certain. We all know what decision was eventually made, but direction the line took could have turned out much different. A definite missed opportunity was not pursuing a heavy rail option and thinking of the current metro subway as a trunk line that a spur line could split off from. With this in mind the Red Line planners could have built a spur using the a Route 40 ROW - which the current plan calls for - from West Baltimore MARC with stops in Harlem Park and UMB, before turning south and connecting with the metro subway at Lexington Market. Here a proper transportation hub and transfer point could have been built as intended. The line would have allowed for a direct connection to downtown and Johns Hopkins Hospital while using available infrastructure. A small spur, with high capacity, for much less money. 

The expensive part would have been to design and build the rest of the Red Line. With a commitment to heavy rail the planners would have had to either tunnel under Edmonson Ave to reach I-70 which would have added tremendous cost, or built it as elevated which the communities would have met with vehement opposition. It would have not been a total loss to stop at West Baltimore since a transit hub could be built there to connect bus lines, the MARC, and the Red Line. 

To the east, the planners could have decided to do a few things. With not having to build another downtown tunnel the Red Line could have either continued jointly with the metro, and both lines extended past JHH to North Avenue and beyond - as is a current idea - or along the Amtrak ROW to Bayview as Right Rail suggests. Another option, albeit more expensive option, could have been to split the Red Line off after Shot Tower continued to at least Harbor East and Fell's Point, or even further then to Patterson Park or Canton. I have discussed this previously in another post. 

However, this is all a pipe-dream since this was never planned out, and we have the current alight rail plan for the Red Line. Oh well.

Why Right Rail is Wrong:

The Right a Rail Coalition is proposing something along the lines of what is outlined above. The exception being they want the western portion of the Red Line built as light rail, albeit designed for longer trains, and end at Lexington Market with a transfer point. They would then use other funding to build a metro extension along the Amtrak ROW to Bayview. However, they would decide not to extend any rapid transit to the quickly growing Harbor East and the parking strapped Fell's Point and Canton communities. Instead those would be served by streetcars. While streetcars would be good for getting people around those areas, it would not be the best form of transportation to get people across the city in a timely manner. An underground line, while more expensive, can move more rapidly and be unencumbered by traffic while connecting to the larger transit network. (see Yonah Freemark's The Value of Fast Transit).

The Charm City Circulator does a great job moving people around the downtown core, but since it has to sit in the same traffic - much as a streetcar would - it does little to move people quickly and efficiently across longer distances. The Red Line as planned does the right thing by putting the line beneath downtown Baltimore and through the narrow streets of Fell's Point before emerging in Canton. 

The other suggestion of extending the metro to Bayview has merits, it bypasses most of the neighborhoods that would benefit the most from the metro to get to Bayview by the easiest route.  Rather something along the above proposal would be better, either under Baltimore Street or Eastern Avenue, before going to Bayview. (I talked about this in a previous post, but now the maps are messed up) With the cost savings of not building a redundant tunnel, funding could be shifted to these options.

Why Right Rail is Right:

Right Rail Coalition Streetcar Plan

There is one place where the Right a Rail Coalition is spot on: the return of streetcars. Currently there is the Charles Street plan, which is stagnant since the city only wants to focus its attention on the Red Line instead of seeing the value of improving transit more comprehensively. They envision a line along North Ave. between the Zoo and Bayview with a potential extension along Belair Road. This is a great idea, the only change I would make is to cut out the meandering route to Coppin State and go direct to Druid Hill Park along a Druid Hill Ave/McCullough route. The line along Broadway intersects with the North Avenue line and connects JHH with Fells Point and Harbor East, and they have the Charles Street line extended to Federal Hill and Fort McHenry.

The reason these streetcar lines work is that they are designed along wide routes, interconnect with one another and the larger transit network allowing for hubs and transfer points. A streetcar in East Baltimore could work, but it shouldn't try to be in place of rapid transit, nor should it try to connect all the way from Canton to UMB on the surface.

Conclusions:

An Opportunity Missed - Had the Red Line planners had some forethought in 2002 a metro Red Line could have been reality. The program is that it is now 2014 and to try to build any heavy rail extension of our metro is highly unlikely. What we are stuck with is a trunk line metro line that carries far less than it could, with no future prospects extension or a spur. Not making a subway transit hub at Lexington Market was a big mistake.

Think Broadly - The current Red Line plan while not perfect will bring a lot of good to Baltimore. It will allow for a more connected system and moreover connect residents and workers to areas of the city that lack rapid transit. But transit planners need to think more broadly to include modern streetcars - with fixed, direct routes and limited stops - to better integrate transit further out from the core.

Take Steps - The major problem with the Red Line is the insistence that all 14.1 miles be built at once which makes for an incredibly expensive and potentially unwieldy project. Had planners instead thought of the Red Line in stages the metro option could have been made to be viable. The complete DC Metro system was not built all at once, nor was the Baltimore Metro line, so why should the Red Line be any different?