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Why Baltimore Needs The Red Line

Another damn article about the Red Line

So the Red Line has been discussed to death, but I thought Car Free Baltimore should have a say. I often think how much easier my life would be if there were an east/west rail line in Baltimore.  While riding the bus has its charms (eh hum), the predictability and speed of fixed rail transit makes it the standard all over the world.  The arguments for and against the Red Line have been discussed ad nauseum, but here are a few more things to consider:

  • The private sector and downtown: The recent report by Downtown Partnership and news of high downtown vacancy rates indicate a need to bring more residents and businesses downtown. Lack of a comprehensive rail transit system is part of the problem.   Last I checked, a garage costs about $10,000-$12,000 per parking space – a huge cost to companies who want to locate downtown.  Many older office buildings may already have garages, but perhaps not enough spaces for new tenants. Creating better transit options can reduce the need to build new parking spaces, reducing costs to new businesses looking to relocate downtown.  Creating better commuting alternatives from the counties can also go a long way in attracting businesses and new employees. In other words, a comprehensive rail system in the city can lower the cost of doing business here.
  • Residential conversions: The aforementioned Downtown Partnership report calls for older office building to be converted into residential uses. This strategy has been very effective in Lower Manhattan, but most new residents in Manhattan don’t have to bring their cars when they move.  I know paying $100-$200 a month for a parking space would discourage a lot of new downtown residents.  An east-west transit route is the missing link for many of these folks, and may tip the scale toward downtown Baltimore becoming a vibrant, 24-7 transit accessible collection of neighborhoods where driving is considered an option and not a necessity. The Red Line can make living in the city more affordable, and subsequently more competitive with the Maryland suburbs.
  • Planning and inter-agency coordination:  Years of planning work and public involvement have created concepts for proposed Red Line station areas with an eye towards neighborhood improvement.  While no alignment will make every resident happy, it’s safe to say there has been more outreach, input from neighborhoods, and inter-agency coordination for the Red Line than any other local transportation project in recent history, including the existing Metro and light rail systems.
  • Less tangible, long term benefits:  This is a long one, so I’ll just link to the new Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s report on the benefits of comprehensive rail transit systems in major U.S. cities. A run down:
    • Higher per capita transit ridership
    • Lower per capita vehicle ownership
    • Less traffic congestion
    • Lower traffic death rates
    • Lower consumer spending on transportation
    • Higher transit service cost recovery

This ends the obligatory I Support The Red Line post.


  • Soleil

    I definitely agree, Baltimore buses are always influenced by traffic while makes it often difficult to know exactly when they’ll arrive. The few times I have taken the current metro it’s been a breeze, and with rising gas prices Baltimore needs the Red Line not only to offer alternatives to owning a car but it would help to bring some more vibrancy to the city.

    Keep up the great work on the blog by the way!

  • Humanamerican

    I do not think the Red Line should be built as planned. Let me start by stressing that I share a car with my wife and use it about once per week. I bike/transit pretty much everywhere. And I agree with you that Baltimore needs COMPREHENSIVE rail transit. I just don’t think the current plan for the Red Line will be a good step in that direction. Its design is severely flawed, so as to be done on the cheap and appease the developer lobby, and building it will hurt Baltimore’s efforts to work toward a truly comprehensive system.

    First, the flaws:
    -It runs above ground in the median of route 40. At best, this configuration will make accessing the stations along this stretch “unpleasant.” At worse (and very likely), it will lead to gridlock along that corridor during construction, and maybe even after, if not enough people choose to use it instead of drive.
    -It will run down Boston St in Canton, an alignment that may be cheaper to construct, but makes no sense at all if the goal is to maximize ridership. The stations along this corridor will have the water on one side and a heavily car dependent neighborhood on the other (I am referring to the design of the neighborhood, not the fact that people use cars there). The 1/4 mile radius catchment for those stations will be a joke. A better alignment would be along fleet street so it serves people in the Patterson Park area (much more urban, with many more likely transit riders, and not bordered by water), but that alignment will cost more money because it will need to be tunneled.
    -The line does not go out to Dundalk, possibly the only community in Baltimore County that is walkable and working class enough to truly benefit from a fixed rail station. Additionally, as should be clear from observing our current Metro line, a rail line that doesn’t terminate in two suburbs won’t draw enough ridership to be worth the cost.
    -Perhaps worst of all, this plan calls for us to build another tunnel under downtown, less than 2 blocks away from the existing metro tunnel. Let me repeat that for emphasis: MTA wants to build ANOTHER TUNNEL, TWO BLOCKS from the existing one downtown. This is despite the fact that all the downtown Metro stops were obviously designed to handle LOTS more riders and multiple lines.

    The end result of these design deficiencies is that reliability will suffer (as it does on our current light rail line due to its design deficiencies), and ridership will be too low to justify cost. This will make it that much harder to get the other projects we need off the ground (extend Metro to White Marsh, build train line through Charles Village and up to Towson). I would rather we build nothing than dump almost $2 billion into a poorly conceived mess that would fuel the fire of those who say that transit is a waste. Think about all the improvements we could make to our current transit options with that money! We could give full signal preemption to the light rail through downtown. We could double track that line from Warren Road all the way to Hunt Valley. We could buy more buses and pay for more trips on some of our most overburdened bus lines. We could get a real time arrival system! Imagine how much these improvements would increase ridership?! Then transit-riders will be a louder voice, and we can demand a real comprehensive rail system, instead of settling for a shiny new, expensive showpiece.

  • Bob

    A few rebuttles:

    -US 40 is now closed due to construction, and there is no gridlock. Between franklin/mulberry/US 40, there is excess capacity to handle construction of the Red Line.
    -Waterfrront light rail in Canton will serve major retail and make the system extremely visible. Contrary to popular belief, it will actually slow traffic and help connect the waterfront to Canton neighborhoods. See San Diego’s system
    -the currently planned system doesn’t preclude future extensions to Dundalk, but as far as ridership and available funding, Bayview was found to be the logical terminus.
    -I do agree that an additional turnnal downtown is redundant, but nothing beats underground transit in terms of reliability and mainteannce of headyways.

    Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

  • Mark

    Thanks!

  • Humanamerican

    Bob, I must make perfectly clear that I am not a NIMBY Canton resident (or any other kind of Canton resident, for that matter). I am not a deficit hawk. And I am certainly not against anything that might reduce automobile capacity. To address your rebuttals:

    -When I say the train will run down rt 40, I am not referring to the “highway to nowhere.” In fact, I’m all for closing it to cars completely and using it for transit, bikeways, new construction, farmers markets, or ninja warrior competitions. My problem is with the part of rt 40 west of the highway to nowhere. That portion does NOT have enough space to accommodate all the traffic that relies on it AND the red line. So, either enough people will have to get out of their cars and ride the red line to offset the reduced auto capacity, or we will have gridlock. And since the train will be running along a busy arterial with lots of intersections, it will probably be extremely (and unpredictably) slow. This will make it a less attractive option, which will reduce ridership, which will make gridlock more likely. The gridlock will further slow down the red line. And let’s not forget that if the train is unpredictably slow through this portion of the line, it will be delayed along the rest of the line, making it less attractive for all its potential riders.
    -Again, I have no problem slowing down traffic, reducing auto capacity, or making transit visible. I don’t think the red line will reduce Canton’s property values. My argument, which your rebuttal didn’t address, is that the Boston St alignment puts half of the catchment area for each of its two stops IN THE HARBOR. Last time I checked, no one lives there, because it’s water. Running a transit line along water or other places where people don’t live is wasteful.
    -I would like to know how it was determined that Bayview is a logical terminus. Is it logical because they ran out of money? Because it gets harder to provide right-of-way past Bayview? These are not the criteria we should be using to engineer our vision of transit. We need a plan that articulates a vision for comprehensive, highly functional transit that is integrated with the communities it serves and treats the region holistically. If we can’t afford to build that plan all at once, let’s break it into more manageable pieces, but don’t engineer a “complete” line that fails to serve key communities. That statement applies to my other critiques of the red line, as well. Plan a system that has dedicated right-of-way along the whole route. If it’s too expensive to build at once, break it up in to chunks.
    -Finally, the tunnel. Your point here again does not seem to be a rebuttal of my argument. In fact, it supports my position on the red line, which is that it should have a dedicated right-of-way along its entire route. That will mean more tunneling, more elevated railway, more expense. It will mean we need to spend a lot more time building support for transit in general, because there isn’t enough support in this region for the transit that we already have. As for the portion of the red line that is planned as tunnel, I cannot support waste so blatant as to be vulgar. There is another transit tunnel, clearly designed to carry multiple lines, literally two blocks away from, and parallel to, the one they want to build. This makes no sense. The only reason it’s being built this way is that the red line is planned as light rail, which is incompatible with the heavy rail going through the existing tunnel. But, if the red line were built with dedicated right of way, it could be built as heavy rail and fit into the existing tunnel. This makes much more sense than what they are planning currently.

    I am not making perfect the enemy of the good. I am making rational the enemy of business-as-usual. Baltimore needs more of the former, and a lot less of the latter.

  • Johanna

    It might also be helpful for events like the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race! This year there will be no parking as there is a sports event and something else. It will be very hard for visitors to park anywhere; last year even racers were towed and had to pay large sums of money thereby ruining something of an excellent day.

  • Soleil

    Does anyone know if they plan on connecting the two lines at Charles Center? There should be a stop where you would be able to switch lines just by walking through a tunnel and not have to leave the station and enter another. I have no idea what the current plan is for that stop but I do hope there is am easy connection point there.

  • http://www.carfreebaltimore.com Michael

    Yes I believe there will be a tunnel connecting the Red Line to the Metro

  • Greg

    The tunnel will be a block long and plans call for a moving sidewalk. This does not meet the definition of an easy connection in my book.

  • Tom

    I suppose a teleportation device or couriers to carry passengers in Radio Flyers would would be an “easy connection”?

  • Humanamerican

    I can’t speak for Greg, but my problem with the tunnel is that it will be overkill. This location doesn’t need two separate stations connected by a tunnel. It needs one station with one set of tracks that carries trains from two different lines. The current build is more akin to something you’d see at a major transfer point in the New York subway.

    Again, if we built the red line properly, it would run through the same tunnel as the current metro. This is the rational approach. It will increase the cost of the whole project as it will require the red line to be heavy rail, but it will also guarantee that the red line has a dedicated right of way along its entire route, meaning it will be fast and reliable. The current proposal will be marginally better than enhanced bus service in terms of speed and reliability, but will cost a lot more.

  • Tom

    Light rail already has dedicated right of way – it’s not a trolley service which will share a lane with traffic. With the most congested segments of the alignment having tunnels, I don’t think reliability will be an issue.

  • Greg

    I’d argue that the Edmondson Ave. segments are already pretty congested. Now, some sort of signal preemption would be a good idea but if we can’t get it on Howard Street, we won’t get it on Edmondson.

  • Greg

    I’m in full agreement with these comments. It would make much more sense to have a short heavy rail extension that builds off of what we already HAVE, than building a completely new transit line that is completely separated from the two we already have.

    I urge everyone here (including the author of this blog) to check out Gerald Neilly’s blog for some excellent alternatives the current Red line plan we have right now. http://baltimoreinnerspace.blogspot.com/2010/06/say-it-again-heavy-rail-red-line-would.html

  • Humanamerican

    I suppose that depends on your definition of “dedicated.” To me, that means the vehicle never has to stop for cross traffic. If you’ve ever ridden light rail down Howard St, you know it has to stop – a lot!

    I’ve heard people say that there is some type of signal preemption in place for light rail on Howard St already. If light rail’s current downtown performance is the best we can expect out of signal preemption in Baltimore, then I’m not interested. Perhaps the more appropriate term for what I want out of rail transit is “grade separation.”

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