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Readers Respond

Should the Red Line be resurrected? | READER COMMENTARY

The proposed Howard Street/University Center stop of the Red Line, the 14.5-mile east-west rail project which would for the first time link the city's subway and light-rail lines.

While the Red Line project was put to rest six years ago, Democratic Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen are trying to revive it. (”Six years after it was scrapped, Baltimore’s Red Line given flicker of hope in federal infrastructure bill,” Aug. 2). As a traffic/transportation planner headquartered in Baltimore, and a lifelong Marylander, I thought it was helpful to provide some details.

In 2011, The Pembina Institute published a report called, Building Transit Where We Need It. The report clearly outlined required population densities needed to make various types of transit investments cost-effective. Additionally, the Puget Sound Regional Council published a guidance paper in February 2015, Transit Supportive Densities and Land Uses, which also discusses population densities.

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For subways, a minimum population density of 47 people per acre is required, while for light rail a minimum population density of 28-60 people per acre is required. To put it in perspective, based on the recently released 2020 Census figures, Baltimore City has approximately 585,000 people on 58,800 acres, or less than 10 people per acre — far below the minimum population density requirements. While it may not seem that way, the reality is that Baltimore City is not dense from a residential or commercial perspective.

Couple this with the fact that light rail is notoriously expensive — to the tune of approximately $150 million to $250 million per mile. As an example, right here in our own backyard, the Purple Line light rail system in Prince Georges and Montgomery counties will cost at least $345 million per mile. For a little over 16 miles, it will cost a total of $5.6 billion! Specifically, Baltimore’s Red Line was projected to cost $2.9 billion for 14 miles or $205 million per mile for the Woodlawn-to-Bayview stretch. This is no small undertaking from a financial standpoint, particularly when our country is overflowing with debt.

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Simply put, based on the numbers alone, building the Red Line light rail would be a huge economic mistake for Baltimore City.

So, what’s the answer? Many modern cities are using Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which aims to combine the capacity and speed of a light rail or metro system with the flexibility, cost and simplicity of bus system. Comparatively, BRT is typically $20 million to $50 million per mile — much less expensive than light rail.

This doesn’t mean we are trading quality for cost. A BRT solution has all the amenities of modern rail while allowing for flexibility. BRT can ride on dedicated lanes, but has the ability to leave those lanes and take another route if necessary. Rail, by contrast, cannot switch routes once constructed.

BRT systems can be built in the median area of roadways, the same layout as the proposed Red Line. Larger buses in dedicated lanes move faster along the route due to traffic signal priority systems, allowing people to move faster from origin to destination.

BRT allows for more transit riders and a more green, sustainable community. Not only can help riders save precious time and money, but it can also connect more people to jobs and educational opportunities.

Wes Guckert (wguckert@trafficgroup.com) is a professional transportation planner and President & CEO of The Traffic Group, a Maryland-based traffic engineering and transportation planning firm. For more info: trafficgroup.com.


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