Competing visions of mass transit for the Charles St. corridor

An artist's rendering of the proposed streetcar for the Charles Street corridor.
An artist's rendering of the proposed streetcar for the Charles Street corridor.

Plans to get mass transit to the communities north of Pennsylvania Station are proceeding on parallel tracks.

A one-year-old, grass-roots campaign to establish streetcar service along the Charles Street corridor and south to the Inner Harbor is still at the door-knocking, leaflet-passing stage.

Meanwhile, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is driving the bus — figuratively — to extend the Charm City Circulator's Purple Line from the train station to 33rd Street. She made the proposal part of her State of the City address in February and reiterated her support last week at a Charles Village community meeting.

Pushing the Circulator bus route north would be less expensive and quicker than building a streetcar line; the mayor is proposing late 2014, after Charles Street is rebuilt. However, a streetcar line is more permanent, and in other metropolitan areas streetcars have attracted major business investment.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who is pushing for bus service beyond 33rd Street to University Parkway, said that right now time is of the essence.

"It's the boost Charles Village needs," she said. "If we're looking to get tourists to stay longer, we've got that second day's worth of destinations. We have things people would stay to see."

Clarke said visitors could take the extended Purple Line to visit the Baltimore Museum of Art, Sherwood Gardens, Homewood House Museum, and shops and restaurants in North Baltimore. In addition, she said, employees and students at Johns Hopkins University would have "reliable, safe, efficient transportation."

But supporters of the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign say that buses may be a good short-term solution or supplemental service, but that they can never replace what a streetcar line would bring to the table — or city.

Robin Budish, the campaign's community coordinator, said economic impact studies done in cities that have had streetcars for a decade indicate that businesses invest an average of $70 million per track mile in areas served by rail. The campaign estimates 2 million people a year would ride a streetcar running from the Inner Harbor to University Parkway.

"A streetcar line helps the mayor with her pledge of bringing 10,000 families back to Baltimore in the next decade," Budish said. "Having great schools and lower crime are key components to accomplishing that, but people also want communities with access."

Streetcars are catching on. According to the National Council of Public-Private Partnerships, more than 75 streetcar initiatives are in the planning stages in North America, including efforts in Seattle; Charlotte, N.C.; and Atlanta.

The promise is hard to ignore: An economic study of Portland, Ore., a pioneer in streetcars, reported that the number of retail stores in the central district went from 10 in 2001, when the line opened, to more than 400 seven years later. In Charlotte, city officials estimate streetcar service would translate into a 44 percent to 55 percent increase in retail business, and local tax revenue could increase by an average of $7.3 million to $13.3 million annually over 25 years.

Next summer, Washington will open the first 2.2 miles of streetcar service in the vibrant H Street business corridor. City leaders hoped the line would bring back a neighborhood rocked by riots in 1968 and largely abandoned. It got that and more: bars, restaurants, coffee houses and performance venues.

That kind of spark intrigues many along the Charles Street corridor.

"The trolley would dramatically enhance transportation on the strongest north-south axis in the city, bringing visitors from Baltimore and beyond to the museum," said BMA Director Doreen Bolger. "We would be delighted to have it."

But the line would cost $200 million, and the Rawlings-Blake administration remains focused on securing funding for a bigger prize: the $2.2 billion Red Line, a 14-mile, east-west light rail extension. The key concern about the streetcar project is the cost and a funding source, mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said.

Over the past two years, the mayor has expanded the free Circulator, opening the Purple Line, the Green Line and the Banner Route to Fort McHenry.

Sharon Guida of the Charles Village Civic Association said it's that kind of quick turnaround that has her rooting for the Circulator.

"The trolley's more long-term. The trolley's more iffy. The Circulator exists. It's immediate. It already runs to Penn Station. We're just asking for it to go north a little more. It's not that hard," Guida said.

But Budish counseled patience.

"We hope that one year from November, we will have our arms around the [streetcar] proposal and be able to get back to the mayor to answer her concerns," she said. "We'd love for this to be her legacy."


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