A streetcar named Charles?

Most who ride the St. Charles Avenue streetcar through New Orleans' Garden District are immediately smitten, not only by the city's charm but also by the convenience and nostalgia of the historic trolley. Many other cities, Baltimore included, have tried to offer light rail as a more modern take on that classic form of street-level transportation.

So it's not surprising that many folks who live in Charles Village and other points along Charles Street are taken by the notion of a streetcar running through their neighborhood, too. Eighty years ago, Baltimore was a city that largely ran on streetcars, with more than 400 miles of track crisscrossing the city, including portions of Charles and St. Paul streets in Charles Village.

But the latest grass-roots effort by local residents, the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign, to lobby Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and others to commit to a $200 million trolley line in their neighborhood is misguided. Not because such a project would not benefit the neighborhood (or most any neighborhood) but because the expense simply can't be justified under the circumstances — at least not in a city with far greater needs, transportation and otherwise.

What Mayor Rawlings-Blake recommended last February — to expand the Charm City Circulator from Penn Station to 33rd Street by 2014 — makes far more sense. The free downtown shuttle bus has been a great success in its first three years of operation, thanks not only to its high-quality service but also to the city's decision to pay for it through downtown parking rates.

The Circulator has already carried millions of passengers, but its cost is tiny compared to that of building and operating a single trolley line. This year's service was financed chiefly by $5.5 million in parking fees. And that's for all three lines, Orange, Purple and Green, running from downtown to as far as Hollins Market and Federal Hill, not to mention water taxi connections to Tide Point and Canton.

So why is a bus — one that is far more comfortable than the average Maryland Transit Administration bus and fare-free to boot — regarded as inferior to a trolley? The speed and convenience are about the same on a shared right-of-way like Charles Street. The bus is just as reliable and can be just as green. It's also cheaper and more flexible, as it's not stuck on fixed rails. Full-size light rail can carry far more riders than a bus, but passenger volume probably isn't the issue for Charles Street.

The answer, of course, lies almost entirely in perception. A streetcar like the version in New Orleans is cool, while a bus is not. For too many people, a bus is thought of as how poor people get around. They are viewed as crowded, dirty, poorly ventilated and inhospitable. Transit planners have been fighting this perception for years.

But the Charm City Circulator isn't like that, and Baltimore residents and visitors are gradually learning to appreciate the difference. Charles Street residents and business owners will, too, if they are willing to give it a chance to succeed.

Baltimore made a mistake when it abandoned its streetcar system decades ago, but it would also be a mistake to invest in a boutique trolley now. Transportation dollars are simply too scarce to justify it. At the moment, there isn't the money set aside to build the $2.2 billion east-west Red Line at the state or federal level, and that's a far higher priority for the city.

Trolley proponents can trot out all the studies they like demonstrating the commercial investment that accompanies rail projects, but they need only look to Howard Street and the impact of light rail there to see those benefits aren't guaranteed. And as for attracting more families to the city? Higher property taxes required of a benefits district (the likely way the city's share of a Charles Street trolley's cost would be financed) are unlikely to help bring new homeowners. Isn't the city supposed to be lowering its property taxes?

Meanwhile, if Baltimore finds an extra $200 million its capital budget any time soon, here's a suggestion: Spend it on schools. As long as there continue to be substandard public schools in the city, upgrading them should be a top priority. A trolley is nice, and a shuttle bus like the Circulator is more practical, but higher-quality schools trump them both as an economic necessity.

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