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No city representative attends streetcar symposium

About 50 business, civic and religious leaders attended a streetcar symposium Wednesday, Dec. 5 but the one person they needed most — anyone officially representing the city — was not there.

There was one city official there, but only because he has a "passion for transportation." Theo Ngongang, division chief of the city Planning Department, told the Baltimore Messenger he wasn't there in an official capacity, but rather because he was invited by the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign, which sponsored the symposium and luncheon at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Ngongang also said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is much more interested in city transportation projects, such as building the Red Line, than she is in building a Charles Street trolley line that would connect the Inner Harbor and north Baltimore.

"The Red Line is kind of the model and we've all been drinking that Kool-Aid," Ngongang said.

Many attendees acknowledged that the city supports projects like the Red Line and expansion of the Charm City Circulator, not a streetcar line, and that attempts to lobby Rawlings-Blake have been unsuccessful since the Charles Street Development Corp., a group of business leaders, began promoting the idea in the mid-2000s.

"I'd say" that's still the case, said Kristin Speaker, executive director of the Charles Street Development Corp.

But, said Sandy Sparks, of Charles Village, a member of the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign steering committee, "You have to try. It's a great idea — and we want to get behind a great idea (for) a world-class city."

"I really hope we don't get discouraged," said developer Bill Struever, one of the speakers at the symposium.

Also represented at the symposium were Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, the Abell Foundation and the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, among other institutions.

Present also were businesses and community groups ranging from Zipcar to the Old Goucher Community Association in south Charles Village, the Southeast Community Development Corp. and the Central Baltimore Partnership.

But in an e-mail Thursday, Rawlings-Blake spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said, "The mayor's position is that the city must first focus on viable transit options with potential funding streams identified.

O'Doherty said the Red Line is an MTA priority transit project and the city supports the effort. He also said Rawlings-Blake has called for extending the circulator from Penn Station up Charles street to 33rd street by 2014, "to provide an immediate and popular transit option to the Charles Street corridor."

The $2.2 billion Red Line is described by the Maryland Transit Administration as a 14.1-mile, east-west light rail line connecting Woodlawn, Edmondson Village, West Baltimore, downtown Baltimore, Harbor East, Fells Point, Canton and the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center campus.

"In support of Governor Martin O'Malley's 'Smart, Green & Growing' initiative, the Red Line would provide enhanced mobility and connecting service to Baltimore's existing transit systems — MARC commuter service, metro, light rail and local and commuter bus routes," states http://www.baltimoreredline.com, an MTA web site.

The Baltimore City Board of Estimates in October approved a memorandum of understanding with the MTA committing the city to building the Red Line. The MTA has asked the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board for $55.6 million for preliminary engineering to draft blueprints for the project.

The 7.5-mile trolley line, estimated to cost between $150 million and $200 million, would run mainly along Charles and St. Paul streets, between the Convention Center in downtown Baltimore and West University Parkway in north Baltimore, linking downtown to institutions including the BMA and the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University.

Supporters last winter said they hoped to use a hybrid technology that could make it the first fixed-rail trolley system in the nation to run without using overhead wires.

Friends of the Trolley Inc., a group headed by Jimmy Rouse, son of the late developer James Rouse, last year hired Robin Budish, of Roland Park, as its community organizer to promote the plan.

Budish, former executive director of the group Fells Point Main Street and former executive director of the Historic Charles Street Association, organized the symposium. She was one of many who said a streetcar line should be part of a broader public-private transportation vision for a region where mass transit and urban walkability is subpar.

"I've lived in parts of the country where mass transit was a given," Budish told attendees. "It's part of a city's commitment in its future."

Rouse agreed, saying, "We have terrible public transportation in Baltimore. We really need to sell (the mayor) a broader vision."

Symposium moderator Alan Fish, Hopkins vice president for real estate and campus services, said the thing that students of the Baltimore area's 14 colleges and universities say they want most is better public transportation.

There was some fear expressed at the symposium that holding a streetcar symposium was stepping on the city's toes as it tries to build the Red Line. But to lock into support of one transportation project over another as an either-or position is "self-limiting," said Karen Stokes, of Oakenshawe, executive director of the Charles Village-based Greater Homewood Community Corp., which acts a resource for about 40 community groups in north-central Baltimore.

"You look around the room and you see where the community might be (on the streetcar issue) versus City Hall," said Mark Counselman, of Oakenshawe, co-founder of Friends of the Trolley Inc.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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