Planners say: No new rail transit for next 25 years

The good news in the new draft 2045 regional transportation plan produced by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council is that the city is focusing on coordinating its major transportation projects into development areas, namely Port Covington and the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. The bad news is that the plan is virtually all highway projects, with no new rail transit whatsoever. The always obsolete "Highway to Nowhere" will be retained, albeit in slightly truncated form. Is this the death knell for "transit oriented development"?
This is how the Red Line had been proposed to look at the Harlem Park Station. It would have done nothing to improve the environment of the surrounding "Highway to Nowhere". The new 2045 plan gets rid of all new rail transit plans, but keeps most of the highway, including this portion.

Governor Hogan is still getting lambasted by the city for killing the Red Line project four years ago which would allegedly had revitalized the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. The city then quickly said it would propose new alternatives, but never did.

The Governor's reason for cancelling the Red Line project was very specific: the downtown tunnel was half the cost yet it didn't connect to the existing subway tunnel. At that time, he also made clear that he was not against all rail transit by approving the Purple Line for Montgomery and Prince Georges County.

After the Red Line's demise, the city even proposed another unrelated rail project - a spur from the existing central light rail line to Port Covington. But that project has also been left out of the new plan.

Here are the chapters of the 2045 plan that deals with projects and funding. Costs are a major issue, of course. Federal rules require that long range regional plans be fiscally constrained and must not be mere "wish lists". But there is a provision for the inclusion of "illustrative projects" which could be amended into the plan "should future funds become available". For example, the plan includes a proposed third span for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, for which no specific concept or cost has yet to be developed.

Such off-budget projects are now a significant trend. These include projects funded predominately by public-private partnerships to be paid back by user revenue, loans, tax increment financing or other creative tools. The Purple and Red Lines were both to be financed by a mixture of these new and traditional methods. But no rail transit projects have now been included in that category as well.

This exclusion makes it appear that the Baltimore City, MTA and Baltimore Metropolitan Council regional planners have simply given up. Governor Hogan implicitly gave a simple directive for the Red Line: Propose a project that actually works, but without a new downtown tunnel two blocks away from the existing subway tunnel that would have cost well upward of a billion dollars.

Since then, Baltimore has had three mayors who have produced no plans.

The explanation might be that Baltimore is simply too dense to accommodate efficient surface rail transit (as opposed to major expensive tunnels), but not dense enough to support the kind of "transit oriented development" that rail transit has thrived upon in other cities. Transit oriented development in Baltimore has been a monumental failure along both the largely underground heavy rail Metro and along the all-surface central light rail line, and even in the two areas served by both, Lexington Market and State Center.

Some changes to the "Highway to Nowhere" and MLK Boulevard

An interesting aspect of the new 2045 regional plan is that an area which should have received major attention to "transit oriented development" in the Red Line plan is now, for the first time, proposed for major spending, but without the Red Line.

This so-called "Highway to Nowhere" corridor of West Baltimore, along with the adjacent Martin Luther King Boulevard, are vestiges of the city's failed interstate highway plans of the 1970s. This new inclusion of major investment, but without rail transit, would be similar to what has happened in other sections of the Red Line corridor. The Harbor East, Harbor Point, Canton Crossing and Bayview areas on the east side have been booming with major development in spite of no Red Line. The city is now betting the same for the "Highway to Nowhere" on the west side.

Throughout the fifteen year Red Line planning process, the city insisted that this "Highway to Nowhere" must be retained, so the potential for "transit oriented development" was limited to certain areas where limited adjustments to the highway were proposed. This seemed to be a major blown opportunity, since preparation for the Red Line entailed temporarily closing the entire highway anyway, which was accomplished with virtually no adverse effects. On the other hand, the Red Line plan itself had to be changed to eliminate the station closest to the highway's MLK intersections to accommodate a longer tunnel.

Those limited adjustments to the highway produced during the Red Line planning have now made it into the proposed 2045 plan. Specifically, this is a $118 million project to remove its two bridges over Martin Luther King Boulevard, replace them with surface roadways and reconnect Fremont Avenue with a large new intersection with the highway. Another $9 million will also be budgeted for "Re-Visioning" the 1.5 mile entirety of MLK Boulevard from Washington Boulevard (Pigtown) to Howard Street (State Center) as a separate project.

But the bulk of the "Highway to Nowhere" within the big notorious West Baltimore ditch between Schroeder and Payson Streets will remain as it has been since the 1970s.

This is a similar but larger version of what was done nearly a decade ago at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere", where one block of the highway between Payson and Pulaski Streets was replaced with surface roadways and at-grade intersections. Pedestrians and local traffic will be able to walk or drive along Fremont Avenue the same way they can now traverse Payson Street - on, off or across the highway.

On Payson Street, this has not reduced the adverse impact of the "Highway to Nowhere" in any significant way. The highway remains a huge impediment to the communities. It is still much easier for local people to use the existing desolate but efficient bridges over the highway at Schroeder, Carey and other streets to get about.

At MLK Boulevard, replacing the existing highway overpasses with bigger surface intersections will also not make things any better for the communities. Yes, the heavy traffic volumes have proven that they can be accommodated, but the amount of backed-up traffic increases greatly without the overpasses, making it a very harsh environment for people, including bicyclists - to which the "complete streets" program is purportedly addressed.

What's more, the walls and buffers which were built along the highway right-of-way to seal off the adjacent Heritage Crossing community will need to be retained more than ever in order to fend off the traffic impacts. This will continue to keep Heritage Crossing as an isolated island, and prevent it from performing its originally intended function to be a catalyst for the revitalization of adjacent Upton, Lafayette Square, Harlem Park and the rest of northwest Baltimore.

MLK Boulevard under the "Highway to Nowhere". These two overpasses are proposed to be demolished, bringing all the highway traffic down to the surface intersections with it. The existing design is actually airy and attractive, but results in major dead spots and is isolated from the Heritage Crossing neighborhood (gazebo seen in background).  

Design is actually only a small part of the problem, and even serves well to mitigate the larger problem of too much traffic at the end of an interstate highway. The overpasses are light and airy (see photo above), in contrast with those on most highways. The larger problem is the highway itself. As long as some portion of the "Highway to Nowhere" is retained as a vestige of an interstate highway, motorists will behave as if it is an interstate highway, and people and the adjacent communities must react accordingly.

There can be no satisfactory "transit oriented development" in such an environment, with or without the rail transit. That is one reason why the communities have suffered and why the Red Line plan failed. The only potential beneficiary of such a plan could be the Metro West project to redevelop the vacant Social Security Administration complex. Since that complex has always been an isolated fortress, it may be be able to function while remaining as a fortress - with whatever pretty new trappings that $118 million can buy as a selling point.

The only satisfactory solution is to get rid of the entire "Highway to Nowhere", or at least narrow it down to a single roadway. Tearing down just one of the two bridges would eliminate the huge dead space which is now the highway median. A remaining bridge could even be converted to a bike bridge or a transit bridge or a bridge for quiet slow local traffic to avoid the congestion at the MLK intersections below.

The fact that the city wants to do pretty much the same things without rail transit that they were planning to do with rail transit, along the Red Line corridor, indicates why they are now willing to dispense with new rail transit altogether. This also shows how rail transit has always been oversold.

None of this means that rail transit can't be worth building, as many other cities have done. It simply means the city needs a good workable plan.

Huge highway changes for Port Covington

While Port Covington's proposed light rail spur has been excluded from the proposed 2045 plan, it does includes major highway spending. This is shown in a separate section of the report for funding by the MDTA (Maryland Transportation Authority - that "D" in the acronym makes little sense). That means that toll revenue from the Fort McHenry Tunnel and other toll roads would be used to finance the projects. Ironically and in contrast to the rest of the plan, no price tag is given for these projects, even though a single exact year is specified for all of them - 2029.

Here is the description given on Chapter 7, Page 36 of the draft report:

Improve I-95 ramps along approximately 7 miles of I-95 and sections of Hanover Street, McComas Street, and Key Highway. Improvements include:

1. I-95 Northbound Off-Ramps- (a) Exit 52, new ramp from Russell Street off-ramp; (b) Exit 53 interchange, new spur from I-395 southbound ramp; (c) Exit 54, remove ramp from I-95 northbound to Hanover Street southbound; and (d) Exit 55, reconstruct ramp from I-95 northbound to McComas Street 

2. I-95 Northbound On-Ramps – new ramp from McComas Street to I-95 Northbound 

3. I-95 Southbound Off-Ramps – new ramp from I-95 southbound to McComas Street westbound 

4. I-95 Southbound On-Ramps – realign ramp from McComas Street Westbound to I-95 southbound

5. Hanover Street – reconstruction from CSX Bridge to McComas Street westbound to I-95 southbound 

6. McComas Street and Key Highway – (a) realign McComas Street; and (b) widen Key Highway between McHenry Row and McComas Street 

7. Pedestrian and Bicycle Connections – (a) new sidewalks along Hanover Street and realigned McComas Street; (b) shared use path along Key Highway; and (c) shared use path linking South Baltimore to Port Covington peninsula.

All this would clearly cost a tremendous amount of money, at least on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, and would be over and above the $660 Million Tax Increment Financing which the city has already allocated to pay for other infrastructure projects in Port Covington. Other federal funding was also requested in concert, and as an equal priority, with the proposed expansion of the Howard Street CSX freight rail tunnel, but that was previously rejected.

Having the tolls of Fort McHenry Tunnel users pay for improvements for a private development such as Port Covington will certainly be controversial, especially since there would be no enhancement of traffic flow for traffic using the tunnel itself, and would most likely make it worse.

And since the light rail project has been excluded, there will be little access or mobility benefit to the rest of the city.

A new kind of transportation planning

Whatever the outcome of all this, it does signal a new era in regional transportation planning - where traditional large scale simulation modeling of traffic flow on a comprehensive network is replaced by a focus on specific key development areas - in this case the MLK/"Highway to Nowhere" corridor of West Baltimore and the Port Covington area of South Baltimore.

This is actually a welcome new direction. Transportation should be used to shape our environment and to invest in needed economic development. The old method relying mostly on traffic volume number crunching mainly resulted in self-fulfilling traffic growth and rampant uncontrolled suburban sprawl.

But doing it with no proposed investment in new rail transit looks like a dead end. Only rail transit, not buses, have proven to be able to shape our urban environment enough to make a real difference. And buses are mostly a short term investment anyway. When buses get old or overcrowded, we simply buy more new ones.

Too much proposed new spending is also falling through the cracks in the plan. Governor Hogan's huge proposed multi-billion dollar "express lane" plan (which started with the O'Malley/Ehrlich I-95 widening from Baltimore to White Marsh) is largely ignored, as are the profound changes that could come about due to billions of proposed "off budget" upgrades to Amtrak and for a new Magnetic Levitation system. The prevalent attitude appears to be that we will build what we can, not what we should.

So this draft 2045 regional transportation plan has serious deficiencies. But looking at the bright side, these are not abstract metaphysical problems. The issues are focused on two very real and very important places: The "Highway to Nowhere" corridor and Port Covington. On the other hand, the cynically-inclined would notice that these two areas are each dominated by powerful well-connected developers - Sagamore/Under Armour at Port Covington and Caves Valley Partners at Metro West at MLK Blvd. in the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. Politics is never far away.

In any event, the solutions can readily be both tangible and real. There are two steps.

1 - The plan needs to analyze the needs of the desolate divided "Highway to Nowhere" corridor in its entirety, coupled with the "ReVisioning" of the entire adjacent MLK Boulevard corridor which is already specified.

2 - The plan needs to analyze the needs of the entire Middle Branch corridor in its entirety. The City is already doing that as an urban design exercise, but it needs to be expanded to a full transportation and economic development study in determine the best investments. The Port Covington plan, a very small portion of the whole, should not simply be treated as a given, especially since development conditions for Under Armour and other prospective tenants are in a constant state of flux.

The results of these studies should show that the Baltimore region does indeed need to invest in additional rail transit over the next 25 years. This would probably not be the kind of pseudo-DC Metrorail type comprehensive system that was proposed in the 2002 plan and which included the failed Red Line project. Instead, it should be the type of development-oriented transit that can make a real difference for the region.

Selected links to a few of many related blog articles:

Greenway linkage including MLK Boulevard and "Highway to Nowhere"

An expanded light rail spur to Port Covington

MLK Boulevard redesign for a Pigtown Gateway

Integrating Metro West with Heritage Crossing and "Highway to Nowhere"

Creating a hybrid streetcar/light rail Red Line

Planners say: No new rail transit for next 25 years