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Hi MTA, What’s Up? Red Line Surface Route Through Downtown

I’m not trying to stir things up.  Not like when your friend asks, “How’s Mary” when he already knows you broke up last month. I’m just asking an honest question. I wasn’t involved in the Red Line alternatives analysis process, and I plead ignorance to the power structures/power players/political stuff which may have made undergrounding the Red Line through downtown an important, “sellable” part of the project. From my 10 minutes of thinking about this and comparing Baltimore to other cities which have surface light rail systems through their downtowns (Charlotte, Dallas, San Diego, Denver to name a few), it seems like a possibility.

A possible Red Line surface route. 2 short, underground pedestrian tunnels could connect existing downtown metro stops to above ground light rail stations at Light and President Streets.

Instead of listing the reasons why a surface route through downtown would be preferable, let me list the reasons why it was probably taken off the table. I speak only for myself:

  • Howard Street – people say, “light rail killed Howard Street”. This is an oversimplification. While Howard could use more through auto traffic for businesses, the street was already in decline when the system was built. If light rail was the single bullet that killed Howard Street and someone can prove it to me, I’ll buy all 4 of my readers a drink at some neighborhood dive bar.
  • Business/Resident pushback – fair enough. Hearing the light rail screeching on every turn is annoying, but newer systems are sleek, much quieter, and less freight train-ish than our current system. Light rail, below ground or above ground, is good for business and improves property values.
  • Transit travel time/headways – since light rail would run on its own right of way, the transit vehicles really wouldn’t be mingling with traffic. Signal prioritization could help speed things along at intersections.
  • Traffic – fair enough. Losing a lane on Pratt, Lombard, Aliceanna and Fleet may be a hard pill to swallow for the engineers. However, we can safely assume a fast, modern surface route would take lots of cars off the roads, too.

So, MTA, I’m just sayin, you know, if we get hard up and we really need to cut a couple of hundred million off the Red Line budget, maybe this could be the way to go.  In a perfect world, we would underground the whole thing and build the Yellow Line and Green extensions at the same time.  But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.


  • Youssef

    EEK, I could not more wholeheartedly disagree with you on this point. I don’t think surface light rail has any place in a backbone network, and that is precisely what we are trying to build. Surface is fine for short distance lines, say from West Baltimore MARC to Fells Point, but the Red Line is intended to be for quick travel across the entire region. As it is, it’s still too slow, and mixes with traffic too much. The last thing I’d want is to see it become a glorified bus line.

    You say that putting the Red Line above ground wouldn’t slow it down much, but let’s remember that the current light rail already has signal prioritization and an exclusive right of way along Howard Street. It still CRAWLS through downtown with top speeds below 20 miles per hour and an average speed comparable to the 27 bus along that same stretch. I don’t see how advances in light rail technology would make the Red Line any faster. They would make it quieter and more comfortable, but not faster.

  • Mark

    I haven’t looked at travel time data of surface rail vs. underground in urban areas, but I will say that station spacing, grade, track curvature, vehicle technology, and signal timing influence travel time greatly. Take all of these factors and marginally improve them and you’re looking at a surface Red Line through downtown which, though not as fast as underground, would be sufficiently fast and may justify the cost/benefit ratio of not digging an expensive, time consuming tunnel through all of downtown.

  • Youssef

    Well, I still fail to see how the items you listed would make the red line through downtown any faster than the current light rail. On the current light rail, grade is negligible, curvature is straight, and signal timing is “optimized” according to MTA. Station spacing doesn’t get bad until you’re between Baltimore Street and Camden Yards, yet the damn thing is plenty slow all the way from University of Baltimore down. If it’s not faster than a bus on the street, then it’s not built for regional travel, in my opinion. And I don’t see how a surface red line would be faster than a bus.

    If we wanted to save some money on tunnel digging, we could, like anyone with a brain should have realized already, run the red line through the same tunnel as our current metro. But then, of course, we’d have to make the red line a heavy rail system, and I think an angel loses its wings every time a mile of new heavy rail is built. Why we can’t build the thing right the first time is beyond me. If we can’t afford it all at once, we should do it in stages, just like we do everything else.