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The Red Line's faulty promise

The 2002 Baltimore Region Rail System Plan envisioned a fully-connected transit system. But budgetary constraints and poor planning have whittled it down to the Red Line — a proposed east-west light rail line whose projected cost has exploded to $2.6 billion and keeps rising. That's a staggering sum that Maryland taxpayers cannot afford, especially with shrinking federal funds and because the cost of any overruns will be paid entirely by the taxpayers of Maryland.

Fortunately, only a small percentage of this cost has been incurred. There is still time to plan the efficient, connected transit system that the Baltimore region so desperately needs. That's why The Right Rail Coalition was formed to advocate for a better, more affordable approach to the future of mass transit for Baltimore.

Consider these problems and missed opportunities:

•East Metro Corridor: The 2002 plan called for a Metro extension from Johns Hopkins Hospital northward as a "Phase 1 Priority Project". That project never got off the ground.

What this corridor could use is a terminal hub to feed bus, MARC and perhaps streetcar riders into the existing Metro, by far the city's best, fastest, and highest capacity transit line. Virtually every modern rail transit line has a major feeder hub. Why not Baltimore? Years ago, city and state planners identified an excellent site at Edison Highway along the Amtrak/MARC tracks — just over a mile from Hopkins — with future extensions possible to Bayview, Dundalk, Middle River and White Marsh, all without additional tunneling. The entire city could benefit. For example, it now takes the #5 bus about 50 minutes to go from this location to Mondawmin, while the Metro would do it in about 15 minutes. Downtown would take about five minutes. If the current Red Line is built as planned, Baltimore will never see any of these improvements to the Metro.

•West Red Line corridor: Despite promises of urgently needed new development to reverse the destructive 1970s Highway to Nowhere, pressure mounted to build the Red Line cheaply on the West Side to make up for escalating costs of the downtown tunnel. For example, downsized stations can handle only two-car trains, despite higher projected ridership than the Metro carries in six-car trains. Virtually any blip in expected peak rider loads, such as special events, would overwhelm the system. The west Red Line should be optimized to spur long-awaited and sorely-needed development in the West Side corridor.

•Downtown and Waterfront: On a slow, low-capacity line limited to two-car trains, the Red Line's exorbitantly expensive downtown tunnel, parallel to and 600 feet south of the Metro tunnel under Baltimore Street, is a huge waste of scarce transit funds. It requires a two-block underground walkway to transfer to the Metro. To cut costs, planners have eliminated all crossover tracks in the three-mile downtown tunnel, meaning that any breakdown would paralyze the entire system. Moreover, unmanned stations seven stories underground put transit out of sight and mind for tourists and make the line inconvenient for short trips to Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton.

One solution could be modern surface streetcars, which would become a centerpiece of the delightful waterfront environment. Slightly slower speeds would not be a problem for short trips, especially since the Red Line is already very slow, about half the speed of the Metro system. Slower streetcars would be more than compensated for by being right in the middle of the action instead of buried 70 feet beneath Lombard Street. Streetcars could be a huge step forward for an entirely interconnected system that could also serve transit-dependent lower income areas on the East Side bypassed by the Red Line.

These scenarios are but a few of the many possibilities for Baltimore if we revisit planning with open minds. The proposed "one size fits all" Red Line ends up fitting nobody. Baltimore needs to build the right rail to meet the particular needs of each part of the Baltimore region. Constructing separate lines using different modes of transit would enable them to be built in affordable stages.

We can start planning the right rail right now. The 2002 regional plan envisioned a transit-oriented city. But building the overpriced, underperforming and unconnected Red Line is a step backward, absorbing every available transit dollar for the foreseeable future and preventing Baltimore from developing the truly connected mass transit system we need.

Kathy Epstein and Maris St. Cyr are founding members of the Right Rail Coalition, a volunteer group advocating alternatives for a comprehensive, integrated and less costly Baltimore regional transit system. They can be reached at therightrail@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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