On May 10, Baltimore is sponsoring a "summit" to discuss the Red Line - a rail transit project proposed to connect Bayview, Fells Point, downtown, Edmondson Village and Security/Woodlawn. One thinks of a summit as an exclusive affair attended by heads of state and other top officials, but this particular summit is open to everyone - even you and me - so we must wonder whether issues crucial to the city's future will really be addressed.
Then we must think about the rail transit system we've built in Baltimore. After constructing 40 miles of rail lines from downtown to Hunt Valley, BWI Marshall Airport, Glen Burnie, Owings Mills and the Johns Hopkins Hospital, do we really have something to build our future around?
The answer is an emphatic no. Two elements have been woefully lacking in Baltimore's rail transit plans: great connections and big development opportunities. The Red Line could have both, if we would just focus on them instead of on all the plans that won't work.
Currently, the subway and light rail lines don't even connect. The best-served area, the west-side Howard/Eutaw Street corridor, is being saved only by heroic development interventions - not by the rail transit system.
Perhaps if one could argue that the Red Line was "the last piece of a puzzle" there would be hope. But the Red Line won't connect with all this either. It might be in a new tunnel a block or two away from the existing subway and underneath the light rail line. Or it will be on clogged downtown surface streets above the subway (as is the Howard Street light rail line). Transit advocates will be out in force at the summit to raise these issues.
Community advocates will also be out in force, to question how the Red Line can fit onto the crowded urban streets of Edmondson Village and Rosemont in West Baltimore and Fells Point and Canton in the southeast any better than does the existing light rail line, which has sucked the vitality from Howard Street.
This sounds like a transit version of the old expressway wars. Too bad it comes down to this - but Baltimore should be very happy that Fells Point, Canton and Rosemont have had plenty of experience defeating expressways in the 1970s to save their neighborhoods for the future.
So what we need is a real summit - or conference, or whatever you want to call it - to ask the real question: How can Baltimore finally create a transit system worthy of our future? Fortunately, the answer is fairly simple.
The West Baltimore MARC station and the adjacent vacant Franklin-Mulberry area could be made into a fantastic transit-oriented development gateway to the burgeoning Washington-Fort Meade-Aberdeen corridor, if we would just concentrate on making the Red Line serve them as well and as directly as possible.
The Route 40 expressway needs to be narrowed to a fast four-lane roadway instead of a bloated fragment of a never-completed interstate spur. This would create room for a development plan that truly embraces the Red Line - which in turn needs to connect directly from the MARC station to the downtown subway and light rail lines with organized, comprehensive bus connections at both ends. Such a Red Line would only be a couple of miles long, so it could and should be of extremely high quality - perhaps heavy rather than light rail, but definitely with one-platform or one-escalator rail transfers.
East of downtown, the best combination of connections and development opportunities is to extend the existing Metro subway rather than the Red Line. The Metro can be brought out of the ground along the Amtrak tracks near the new biotech park just north of Hopkins Hospital. It can then run quickly eastward along existing railroad rights-of-way to serve a new MARC station, a comprehensive bus terminal, the growing Hopkins-Bayview research park and a huge new development corridor along Haven Street from Greektown to Highlandtown to Brewer's Hill to Canton Crossing, which has already been staked out by some of Baltimore's top developers.
The key to a successful future for transit is a conference that explores promising opportunities, not old battle lines.