Baltimore area's commuter rail system an unfortunate train wreck [Commentary]

Years ago, I did a fair amount of traveling, mostly along the East Coast, and was pleasantly surprised that most cities are equipped with reasonably reliable commuter rail systems.

The closest is Washington, D.C., whose Metro system is so reliable and easy to use, I long ago gave up trying to use a car in the nation's capital. Certainly Washington's odd street system — which on a map resembles a grid with a spoked wheel on top of it — is a challenge for drivers, especially those who don't use it every day. The bigger problem there, however, is parking. Good luck finding it and when you do, get ready to pay.

If you want to see the sights in Washington, park at a suburban Metro Station (my usual is Greenbelt, but Bethesda is nice, too) and take the train or Metro.

Being in the habit of turning into a commuter tourist in D.C., I generally have used the same tactic elsewhere, notably in Atlanta, New Orleans (pre-Katrina), Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco-Oakland and, of course, New York. With the exception of my air excursion many years ago to California, the other trips were made by car, but invariably I would find a secluded space to leave it and travel by train to the various urban attractions and friends' homes.

The one place I've never done much traveling by commuter train, oddly enough, is the greater Baltimore area. I've taken the light rail from Hunt Valley to the stadium complex and I've ridden the MARC Train, though that trip went right through Baltimore to Union Station in Washington, D.C. Mind you, I was in my teens back when the first of the Baltimore area's commuter rail lines was built, that being the subway that links Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

I had high hopes for the train. After all, it was part of a future that I had been anticipating since my earliest trips that involved my family traveling the Baltimore Beltway's northwestern section. In my boyhood, there was no beltway exit between Liberty and Reisterstown roads. Instead, at roughly the location of modern day I-795, there was one of those green and white highway signs with a single word emblazoned on it: "Future."

When I-795 was built, roughly at the same time as New Route 24 was built in Harford County, it included the tracks for the Baltimore Metro Subway running down what otherwise would have been a median strip. The future indeed.

That was every bit of three decades ago, and, though more local rail lines have been constructed, you'd be hard pressed to figure out a way to combine using the Subway, the light rail system and the MARC trains to get around Baltimore in a meaningful way. In short, they're not particularly well-integrated with each other, they're slow, even compared to cars in rush hour traffic; and they're hit and miss at night and on the weekends.

Still, I follow the comings and goings of updates to the Baltimore commuter rail network partly because I like trains, and partly because I believe my home city will be continue to be relegated to second or third tier status among U.S. cities as long as its public commuter rail system continues to be second or third rate.

So the latest bit of track in the works goes by the name of the Red Line, which is appropriately named because it has a fair number of people seeing red. It would link the Woodlawn-Social Security area on the west side with Fells Point, Canton and Highlandtown in eastern Baltimore City. It would have transfer stations for the light rail system and even the MARC train-Amtrak line, though, curiously, the Baltimore Metro Subway would remain a free-standing system with no linking stations to any of the city's other rail transit.

It's planned to be about 14 miles, including just shy of five miles underground, with 19 stations and a total estimated cost of $2.5 billion. It is supposed to go into operation in 2021, which puts it nearly a decade away, presuming no delays.

Those in opposition complain about the cost, particularly the cost of the underground portion, which is largely on Baltimore's east side. To me, cost always is a legitimate thing to be concerned about when it comes to government projects, but in this case I think back to the days when the Owings Mills to Hopkins subway was part of a larger vision for a Baltimore subway system. Delay building something that is regarded as important to the city's viability, and the costs will only increase. As it turned out, those predictions were spot on, even as the same argument can still be used, which is to say $2.5 billion may well look like a bargain years down the track.

My concern isn't that an expensive underground portion links the rail network to Canton and Highlandtown. This makes perfect sense to me. What's puzzling is why the plan doesn't also include extensions from the Highlandtown area, straight on through to Essex, Rosedale, Dundalk, White Marsh and beyond into Harford County.

These heavily populated areas exist largely or entirely only by virtue of their link to Baltimore (and Baltimore's existence these days depends largely on its ties to the suburbs). Failing to link the various Baltimore area communities convenient rail system is likely to hobble the region for years to come, the bright future promised by that exit sign of my youth notwithstanding.

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