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All aboard: Green Line, Red Line, Yellow Line, home

The Baltimore Sun

It's not just because yesterday was my birthday - thank you, yes, being another year older does beat the alternative - that I've been imagining my future self lately.

It's more because on Friday I picked up a map of the future Baltimore Regional Rail System, a dazzling if at this point mostly fictional depiction of a multi-colored, many-tentacled thing that would ferry passengers to all manner of hither and yon in the greater metro area. I envisioned myself hopping onto a train to check out the new Isaac Mizrahis at the Mondawmin Target (Green Line) or heading to a concert at the Merriwether Post (Yellow Line) or dinner at Ikaros in Greektown (Red Line).

I just hope by the time that's possible, I'm not too old to shop, rock out or gnaw on some lamb chops.

But with age comes patience - and you need a lot of that when it comes to public transit in Baltimore. To ride is to wait, and not just for a bus that's running late or for a MARC train that hasn't been canceled without explanation. No, the longest wait is for a truly connected system, one that links the fragmented bits of one that we currently have.

One piece of a larger system got a smallish boost on Friday, when officials and community groups gathered to ceremonially sign the so-called "community compact" to guide the planning and construction of the Red Line, the proposed crosstown route. The document pledges all sorts of niceties, from hiring local contractors and workers for the construction to taking advantage of clean and green opportunities to giving communities on the line input in design and planning.

Signing off were Mayor Sheila Dixon and state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, as well as representatives from 19 community groups. And therein lies one cause for concern that the Red Line still has a long way to go before it's actually carrying passengers from Woodlawn to Hopkins Bayview: Most of the community groups that gave it their John Hancocks were from the west side, like Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park, while the east side was more lightly represented. The proposed line still hasn't been fully embraced, particularly by those who fear it will damage the historic character or rattle the old buildings in a neighborhood like Fells Point (which, actually, is where the signing ceremony took place).

And beyond getting every community along the Red Line on board many hurdles and questions remain, from federal funding issues to where the actual route will run and which parts will be above- or underground. The timeline is a long one, with the city estimating that construction wouldn't even begin for another four years and then last several more. And that's the optimistic scenario.

All the more reason, then, to get this project going not now but yesterday.

Sometimes I wonder if Baltimore's block-level provincialism - there are people who never stray beyond a certain radius not just of where they were born but where their grandparents were also born - has something to do with a lack of decent transportation. It's simply too hard to get from one part of town to another, particularly using public transit.

Now, though, between high gas prices and high guilt over carbon emissions, the need for a better bus and rail system is critical. The few times I've ever taken public transportation in town have been mostly exercises in frustration - nothing seems to connect to anything else very well, so you face either a long wait in the middle of your journey, or a long walk at the end of it.

The Red Line does face some challenges - finding a way to get it through already tight areas like downtown and Fells Point, for one, and dealing with the disruption of the construction. Not to mention finding the money for it. But in the end, that seems like a small price to pay for something that would relieve much of that very congestion.

Admittedly I am something of a transit map geek - I think it's something about the endless possibilities, within a contained system - but even if you're not, isn't there something kind of cool about a transit system that would take you from Texas to Waterloo (Yellow Line)?

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