The Interview: Robin Budish, community organizer for Baltimore Streetcar Campaign

Robin Budish spends her days rallying support for an idea she says will make downtown Baltimore more livable — building a streetcar line along Charles Street.

Budish was hired last fall as community organizer for the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign, a grass-roots group that believes a fixed rail trolley system would attract residents, boost civic pride, spur economic development and benefit tourism, retail and cultural institutions. Budish, the former executive director of Fells Point Main Street, and also a former Historic Charles Street Association executive director, has been meeting with downtown residents, business owners and other stakeholders.

The streetcar campaign, formerly known as Friends of the Trolley, hopes to persuade city officials to get behind the project, find sources of funding and get it built. The group believes 2 million people a year would ride a line running from the Inner Harbor to University Parkway.

Last week, Budish talked with The Baltimore Sun about her role with the group and its goals.

Why does your organization feel strongly about this project?

We feel that a streetcar system is what's needed to bring Baltimore into the 21st century to make it a more livable city. The mayor talks about bringing 10,000 families to Baltimore, and the fact is people are looking for a livable city, and it's got to have a solid mass-transit system. We believe the streetcar is the answer.

Why build a trolley on Charles Street?

In the U.S., you're not going to find a route with more to offer, not only for tourists but people who live here. You've got universities along the route. You've got Peabody, Johns Hopkins, University of Baltimore and also MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art]. Then you have two world-class cultural institutions, the Walters [Art Museum] and the BMA (Baltimore Museum of Art); so you add that with retail, businesses, restaurants, and it's just a great corridor. A streetcar would really connect the Inner Harbor to all of these places.

Whom would the trolley serve?

We believe the streetcar would serve tourists, residents, students and visitors to the cultural and educational institutions along the corridor.

What type of streetcar does your group envision, and how would it operate?

We are looking at fixed rail, and wireless, with no overhead wires. The cars would be smaller than light rail. It would operate in the street with traffic and be very modern technology. It would be one of the first of its kind in the United States..

How and when did the idea to build a streetcar on Charles Street emerge?

It was the creation of the Charles Street Development Corp. [in 2000]. A challenge was how to get people from the Inner Harbor up the Charles Street corridor. When I was on Charles Street for six years [with the Historic Charles Street Association], there were a lot of presentations and there was momentum. Their purpose was to persuade the mayor through analysis that it was good for Baltimore, but the community organizer role never was fulfilled. Mark Counselman, an Oakenshawe resident, founded Friends of the Trolley, and we were just renamed the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign. [The group can be found online at]

What is the role of your group and how does that differ from others supporting the project?

I think the major difference is we are a grass-roots group. The development corporation is looking to [show] the mayor through economic feasibility studies why it's a good project for Baltimore. We absolutely have the same goal.

What is your role as community organizer?

I'm trying to create a groundswell of support … to show there is in fact this groundswell of support, and that people really want this.

Has any funding been identified for this project? What would be the cost?

The streetcar costs, in 2010 dollars, are estimated at $195 million, and we can tap into federal, state and local money. We're looking at all different sources.

Are there any strong supporters within city government or elsewhere?

My understanding is that … the mayor had said this is not a priority because of the focus for funding the Red Line [transit project for Baltimore's west side]. We were told that right now they don't see viable funding for the project, but if a viable source could be developed that they would consider moving forward with possible implementation. We want to partner with them to help find funding.

Can buses, or a downtown circulator-type system, serve the same role as a fixed-rail trolley?

I would have to say no. The Charm City Circulator is the third circulator we've had on Charles Street in the past two decades. Circulators come and go, depending on who's mayor and the state of the city's finances. Business people realize this. So what happens in terms of new investment, believe it or not, for a circulator it's zero, compared to $70 million per mile [for a streetcar].

What cities with trolley systems would you consider models?

Portland, Ore., definitely. It's state-of-the-art, world-class transportation, where the economic benefits are indisputable. There are great streetcars in Dallas, Tampa and Little Rock. There are 12 cities with streetcar projects under construction. [In general,] the economic piece of it, it has brought in $70 million per mile per year of new investment.

Can you use existing infrastructure?

No, unfortunately. The streetcar is going to require laying rails in the street, and these are going to be new.

Do you see this project becoming a reality in the next few years? What will it take to get the project built?

We absolutely believe this project can be a reality in the next few years. It's going to take the mayor to lend support to the projects. But equally as important, we need to work with her on a feasible funding plan. The project could be completed in 2.5 years. It can be done relatively quickly.

If the trolley is built and successful, do you envision an expansion of routes?

We absolutely look at it expanding to other routes, to several routes throughout the city. Charles Street would be a pilot program, and with its success other routes would be developed.

Are you hoping plans for a modern streetcar will evoke memories of Baltimore's early streetcar system? [The city's first streetcar system started with horse-drawn cars in 1859, converted to electric power in the late 1800s and expanded to 400 miles, extending to Curtis Bay, Ellicott City, Woodlawn, Reisterstown, Druid Hill, Towson, Overlea, Middle River and Sparrows Point. The last streetcar stopped service in 1963.]

It was a huge part of our history. We're looking to bring it more current.