Bring streetcars back to Baltimore

Many cities across the United States have recently added modern streetcar lines, which have long been a staple in the cities of Europe and Asia, to their existing public transit systems, including Portland, Ore.; Cincinnati; Seattle; Salt Lake City; Atlanta and nearby Washington, D.C. Modern streetcar planning is currently underway in New York City, Detroit, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City, among other areas. These new streetcars are helping to revive the convenience and excitement of city life. They are also serving as essential links to employment both for people who depend on public transportation and for those who prefer streetcars over driving and parking on crowded city streets. It is high time for Baltimore to join these other cities.

During the last century, Baltimore had one of the nation's leading trolley systems, with over 440 miles of fixed rail serving us in the city and suburbs, going in all directions. Along Baltimore City's hundreds of miles of streets today, we have only about 20 miles of Metro and light rail within city limits to serve us as fixed rail public transit. These two lines generally go from north to south across the city.

Many agree that we now also need to serve Baltimore's east and west sides with fixed rail public transportation, free of the kind of traffic congestion that comes along with bus transportation. Our current and proposed bus system is extensive. But as a public transportation system, it is incomplete and inadequate, even with the new BaltimoreLink bus system which is to be launched next month.

Streetcar and light rail offer several unique advantages over bus transit. The geographical stability provided by a fixed rail line is a great encouragement to local economic development. The 14 miles of the proposed Red Line light rail system, scrapped two years ago by Gov. Larry Hogan, would have added needed transit along one of the city's principal east-west corridors. However, we can still plan now to bring east-west fixed rail to Baltimore as part of the Comprehensive Transportation Strategic Plan called for two months ago by Mayor Catherine Pugh's Transportation Transition Committee Report. What might such an east-west fixed rail system look like? Two possibilities come to mind.

A new 5-mile modern streetcar line could run from one end of North Avenue, the east-west spine of the city, to the other, from Milton Avenue to Hilton Street (as the No. 13 trolley used to do many years ago). This streetcar could serve the many residents along North Avenue, as well as Coppin State University, MICA, University of Baltimore, Station North, Greenmount West, Penn Station and the area developing near Broadway and North Avenue.

This could be complemented by an 8-mile west-side light rail line that would cover the route proposed for part of the former Red Line from Western Baltimore County into West Baltimore along Cooks Lane and Edmondson Avenue and the Franklin-Mulberry Corridor, terminating on the eastern end at the hub that already exists at Lexington Market. There, it could connect with both the existing north-south light rail and Metro lines. This new line could serve the many residents of West Baltimore, along with workers and shoppers at the federal offices and shopping centers in Woodlawn.

The streetcar line would cost a good deal less to build and operate than the light rail line, but there is no reason why a city and metropolitan area the size of Baltimore could not afford to build and operate both. Both these lines would require creative financing that would draw on state and local public funds, as well as substantial contributions from the private business community. Federal financial assistance would also be very helpful. But even if it were not available right now under current political realities, the two projects might still be able to go forward. A 44-page report, "Local Funding Options for Public Transportation," released last month from the respected Victorian Transport Policy Institute, explores the advantages and disadvantages of 18 local funding options for public transportation.

A North Avenue modern streetcar and a west-side light rail line could go a long way toward fulfilling the message of Mayor Pugh's Transition Report: "...to strive to create the integrated, efficient, and equitable transportation system that is essential to Baltimore City's economic growth and contributes to a high quality of life for all of its residents."

Art Cohen is the founder of b'more mobile (www.bmoremobile.org); his email is artc12health@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
70°