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Transportationby Mark Reutter8:15 amJun 26, 20150

Analysis: How the Red Line dug itself into a hole

Long before Gov. Hogan entered office, the Red Line had become a white elephant. What’s needed now: sensible urban transportation.

Above: The Rawlings-Blake administration recruited these rockers, some from the city Department of Transportation, to gin up support for the Red Line in front of City Hall in May.

Baltimore’s equivalent of Boston’s notorious “Big Dig” road project – a rail tunnel that would burrow under the Inner Harbor, Harbor East and Fells Point – was at the crux of Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision yesterday to “table” the Red Line.

When Hogan announced his opposition to the transit line, saying “the current proposal makes no sense whatsoever,” he was referring to the 3.4-mile tunnel that would extend from the Fremont Avenue on the West Side to Boston Street in Canton.

Roughly estimated at $1.5 billion – a price certain to explode skyward like the “Big Dig” did in Boston because of its length and the complexity of building under the harbor – the tunnel was cited by Hogan’s transportation secretary, Pete Rahn, as the deciding factor in his thumbs-down evaluation of the Red Line.

Baltimore desperately needs more mass transit.

But it needs transit that actually works and that would serve a reasonable portion of the city’s population. The Red Line would do neither.

For the moment, the rationale of Hogan’s decision will be sidetracked by the political perception of a “suburban” Republican governor dissing a Democratic mayor seeking jobs and economic development for her struggling city.

Yes, Hogan is rabidly pro-highway. But in this case, perhaps unintentionally, he did Baltimore a favor by saving it from a boondoggle that would suck up state and federal transit money for decades to come.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake yesterday criticized the governor’s decision, arguing in a press release that the Red Line would have “expanded economic development, created thousands of jobs, increased access to thousands more.”

The Greater Baltimore Committee and Baltimore Sun editorial board added to the choir of lamentations, saying the Red Line was essential to Baltimore’s future.

The Red Line is anything but that. Essentially, the line was a holdover and afterthought of the East-West Expressway (“Highway to Nowhere”) that displaced tens of thousands of African-American residents of West Baltimore.

The mile-long segment of superhighway that was completed in 1979 has created no jobs, attracted no industries and spawned no new housing. Today it runs in a cut flanked by blocks of vacant and broken-down rowhouses.

ABOVE: Route of the 14.1-mile Red Line. BELOW: part of the Red Line tunnel proposed through downtown and southeast Baltimore. (MTA, Brew mapping)

ABOVE: Route of the 14-mile Red Line. BELOW: Part of the Red Line tunnel proposed through downtown and southeast Baltimore, with the existing Metro subway in green. (MTA)

red-line tunnel

Getting More for the Buck

The proposed Red Line tunnel would not only be built by a select group of high-paid, non-city specialists, but it would duplicate the existing Metro subway line that runs east-west along Baltimore Street.

Located just two blocks apart, the two lines would never connect. That’s because the Metro is a “third-rail” subway line that is physically incompatible with the overhead catenary of the Red Line, according to state transportation planners.

But why can’t riders use the Metro subway through downtown and then hop on the Red Line for their rides to West Baltimore and to Canton/Bayview?

The money saved from boring a second hole could buy Baltimore a lot of light-rail street lines radiating from the Metro’s station stops at Lexington Market, Charles Street, Shot Tower and the Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

That’s what the Right Rail Coalition has been proposing for the last two years. They and other local transportation activists have sought streetcars on Charles Street, North Avenue, Harford Road, Broadway and elsewhere to lure residents, jobs and economic development to places other than the waterfront.

Connections and Linkages

Urban transportation is all about connections and linkages. The most successful model is the hub-and-spoke model used by cities from Paris to Moscow to Chicago and San Francisco.

The Red Line, by contrast, is a single 14-mile-long line that would be used by a relatively small number of people – 35,200 daily riders, according to projections by the Maryland Transit Administration.

That’s about as many as the Beltway can handle in an hour.

An artist's sketch of a Red Line train, which would be limited to two cars because of short station platforms in the tunnel section of the line. (MTA)

An artist’s sketch of a Red Line train, which would be limited to two cars because of short station platforms in the tunnel section of the line. (MTA)

Marty Taylor, president of the Right Rail Coalition, last night hailed Hogan’s decision  as “an incredible opportunity to build real transit improvements in Baltimore.”

He said the Canton-based non-profit will urge the governor and mayor “to consider our alternatives for a better Red Line at less cost to the taxpayers by building new transit in affordable, connected phases.”

Among the group’s ideas:

• Extending the Metro east from its present Hopkins Broadway terminus to Bayview and I-95, tracking through mostly vacant land and along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. (The extended Metro would connect to MARC commuter trains south to Washington and north to Perryville.)

• A modified West Side Red Line that could serve West Baltimore, using the right of way of the proposed Red Line along Franklin-Mulberry but connecting with the Metro at its Lexington Market hub.

Some surface streetcar routes proposed by the Right Rail Coalition on Charles (purple), Pennsylvania (green), orange (North, Broadway and Madison) and other streets. (Right Rail Coalition)

Transit advocates have proposed streetcar routes on Charles Street (purple) and on North Avenue, Broadway and Harford Road (orange) for a true hub-and-spoke system. (Kittleson Associates for Baltimore Streetcar Campaign)

Taylor’s group has many more ideas than the Rawlings-Blake administration, which has kept to the script that the Red Line was “a done deal” even after Gov. Hogan, a Red Line skeptic during the governor’s race last year, was elected.

Time and Treasure

Baltimore has spent enormous amounts of time jumping through the planning and regulatory hoops since the Red Line was put forth 15 years ago at the tail end of Gov. Parris Glendening’s administration.

For years, the city was convinced that construction of the project would be borne almost exclusively by Maryland and Washington. The perception of a “free ride” evaporated last year when the projected price tag went up by $400 million and it became clear that city would have to pony up about $250 million in land and shared costs to get the project started.

A fresh look at how rail transit can best serve the city – and help to rejuvenate areas like Harlem Park and Sandtown-Winchester devastated by the “Highway to Nowhere” – is long overdue.

The rejection of what DOT Secretary Pete Rahn yesterday called “a fatally flawed project that frankly needs to be set aside” is a good start.


Pro-transit coalition seeks alternatives to Red Line on East Side (4/17/13)

Red Line planner answers his critics (5/3/13)

How the Red Line and streetcars can live well and affordably together (8/19/13)

What’s “our” streetcar doing in San Francisco? Riding on a transit system that works (8/20/13)

City starts process to acquire private land and easements for Red Line (2/3/14)

Red Line project passes a key federal hurdle (3/17/14)

MTA plans to move Red Line station to appease Paterakis (4/25/14)

As Red Line costs rise, city and county face prospect of cash payouts (7/24/14)

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